Stoic Philosophy and the Dichotomy of Control
When should you change the world? When do you change yourself? Epictetus opens the handbook with the line:
Some things are in our control and others not.
This is one of the key principles of Stoicism.
For things that are under our control, we can act. Those things that are out of our control we can view as they are — that is all. In the well known words of the serenity prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
On one hand, it’s an obvious insight, but one that is hard to ingrain. This is why it is repeated so often.
There’s also hidden complexity here. What is under our control? How do we know?
For Stoics, there are only two things that are under our direct control: actions and judgements.
In the realm of action, when we’re unconstrained we’re free to act as we please. We can attempt to change the world, but ultimately we only have control over our actions — how the action influences the world is not under our direct control. As analogies, a poker player can influence their odds of winning by making the right plays, but they have no power over the cards. We can launch the arrow from the bow, but once it leaves the wind may have other plans.
In the realm of the mind, we have the power to react to events as we choose. What upsets or pleases us are our judgements about things, not the things in and of themselves. In the words of Marcus Aurelius:
If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now.
This idea is captured in contemporary psychology as cognitive defusion.
Which side do you fall on?
The question arises: how do I decide between acting versus changing how I react? Often it isn’t obvious whether one should attempt to change the world or one’s attitudes. We fall too hard to one side of the dichotomy, control or lack of control.
Consider the following relationship pattern. Your partner does something that offends you. At this point: you can change how you react or do whatever is in your power to control your partner’s behavior. Suppose you opt for the first, you decide to not become offended. Suppose this happens again. And again. Each time, you decide to change your attitude. Overtime, the offensive acts of your partner become more and more egregious, but you opt to change how you respond to their tantrums, instead of doing what is in your power to shape their behavior. Needless to say, this is not a sustainable relationship pattern. At some point you need to, at the very least, communicate how you feel and not merely bear it.
As another example, consider starting a company. In this case, you’re taking a risk and may be working on something you’re unlikely to pull off. Even so, if you want to succeed, you need to have a strong bias towards action. Instead of focusing most of your attention on modifying how you react to events or negative thoughts (“maybe if my company fails it wouldn’t be so bad”), one should nearly always be acting.
In the two cases above, it’s likely important for the characters to be involved to move towards having a bias towards action, rather than adjusting their judgements.
Of course, there are cases that exemplify the opposite.
Suppose we modify the previous relationship example. Now whenever your partner says anything offensive, you respond by attempting to change their behavior. You focus most of your attention on aiming to make them stop saying those offensive things. Whenever anything comes up that slightly offends you, you take this strategy. This is the opposite bias of the previous step — a case where the bias towards action is less likely than ideal. Often you can let the silly, offensive things your partner says go.
And again, consider starting a company. If you’re in this situation and you find that it’s your attitudes that are holding you back, whether it’s the fear of failure or ruminating doubt, you may be justified by investing more time in changing those attitudes.
What I want to call attention to is that it is often not easy to determine what needs to change.
What to do now? I think there are two important tools we can use.
Figure out where you fall and do the opposite
One heuristic we can use for deciding to change our actions or judgements is determine which side we tend to fall on. Ask yourself whether you’re biased towards believing you can control a situation or not. If you find yourself leaning towards the need for control and action, consider opting towards modifying your judgement more. If you find yourself leaning towards acting like a lower case s stoic, opt towards action more.
In self-help, there’s a “law of equal and opposite advice” for every piece of advice that’s useful to someone there’s another person who would find the exact opposite advice useful.
Be more confident and speak up more
Doubt your beliefs and listen more
You are too harsh on yourself, be less of a perfectionist.
Stop making excuses for yourself, have higher standards.
Some people need to hear one piece of advice, others need to hear the reverse. In some contexts, the same person may need to hear one piece of advice and in another, the complete opposite.
What you need to do is determine which camp you fall into. Do you have a bias towards control? Try the opposite approach. Do you have a bias towards acceptance? Try the opposite approach. Through experimentation you can find the way.
This advice is in no way original to me. I first encountered it in Aristotle’s Ethics. Aristotle believed that every virtue is a mean between two vices. One way to get closer to this mean is attempt to overshoot — if you do this, you may find that you’ll hit the mark.
Specificity and Reason
The second heuristic is simply being vigilant about specifics. Above, we considered the a relationship pattern and starting a company. Whether someone should attempt to change the world or their judgements about it depends heavily on their own situation. This point is, on this level, pretty obvious. But it is exceptionally important — it’s getting the obvious wrong that hurts the most. If you don’t know what to do in a given situation, try to be more concrete. Think in terms of examples.
In fact, the relationship and company examples above do not have enough detail. Both are short of concrete examples. Both could be more specific about particular actions or attitudes that are under consideration.
If you find yourself in something like the relationship case, consider what particular things appeared to be offensive to you. Consider how you responded at the time. Consider how previous conversations over the matter have gone. Do all this in detail. Think of yourself as a scientist taking inventory of your life with detached curiosity.
When you do this, you may find that there’s an option to do both. Not strictly of course, you can’t do A and ~A. No breaking the laws of logic here. However, you may notice that your reaction to your partner’s remark was just that: a reaction and nothing more. But still communicate honestly about how their remark initially made you feel. In this way, you may find that you can act while modifying your initial impressions.
When should you change yourself? When should you change the world? It depends. Happily, Stoicism reminds that we have rational natures that we can use to figure it out.