It begins…and now I actually have to do it.
For those who don’t know what I mean, go here. Then: All ahead full!
I’m good at navel gazing (even in public), but for the purpose of keeping up with Stoic Week, I’m going to use my blogging time to think mostly about principles and texts; I’ll keep most of my more personal reflections to myself, for the most part, as there’s no need for all four of the people who regularly read my blog to take an extended tour of the ol’ psychological sewers (consider them “under construction” and therefore off limits).
The morning reflection assigned for today comes from the Enchiridion of Epictetus; the Stoic Week organizers use a slightly different translation than the one I usually assign for class, but it’s familiar nonetheless:
“Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception [the way we define things], intention [the voluntary impulse to act], desire [to get something], aversion [the desire to avoid something], and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, position [or office] in society, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing.” (passage 1)
Obviously one of the controversial things about statements like this is the apparently clean separation of the body and mind implicit in putting our desires and aversions under our control and our bodies outside of our control. As people more deeply acquainted with the physiology of mental illness are wont to point out in response to claims of this kind, it simply isn’t that simple. Sometimes, that body itself makes controlling desires and aversions nearly impossible to manage, and requiring such control is manifestly unfair (and even dangerous) to people who have to deal with that sort of thing as a regular feature of their lives. That isn’t to say that making clear to ourselves the limits of what we can reasonably be expected to control isn’t a good idea — it’s only to suggest that perhaps retaining this particular understanding of that bit of Stoic dualism isn’t necessarily the best way to do it.
What, then, might be an acceptable alternative? For some of us, our body is to at least some small degree under our control; that’s part of the point of certain kinds of physical training. We cannot change the fact of it, and we cannot undo a lifetime of eating and exercise habits (good or bad) or a set of existing bodily properties and propensities (height, inherited heart valve conditions, existing damage from accidents, etc.) simply by willing it, but we can train — we can make it possible for the discipline of mind recommended by thinkers like Epictetus to affect the well-being of the body (indeed, this seems hard to avoid). I cannot, by willing it, make myself a better guitar player. I can, however, decide to set aside the time to practice playing (although I may not always be able to make use of that time). In my own experience, I really can’t just decide not to be hungry, or not to be affected by changes in blood sugar levels or protein intake. I can, however, become carefully and deliberately aware of how these things feel, how they affect my judgments and behaviors, etc. I can then use that awareness to make decisions about how I allot my time (when it is within my power to do so — events are not always — or even all that often — up to us) so as to manage those effects.
Perhaps a better way to think about how to work out the distinction between what I can and cannot control about myself is to talk about the limits of decision-making itself, or to recognize which part of any occurrence or experience I can control. That last bit may be entirely ad-hoc — there’s not a pretty, simple rule for every person, every time. Only the need to reflect, in that moment, on what is and is not within my power. All I may have is the story I can tell myself about what I’m up to.
The danger, of course, is that we may still easily make mistakes, either by imagining that we can control things that we cannot or refusing to take control of things that are in fact up to us. In some ways, Nietzsche’s amor fati, while it owes much to (and is a commentary on) Stoicism, is a bit more forgiving, or at least better at accounting for how these mistakes themselves may actually help us to develop a different (perhaps better?) understanding of what we do in fact control. We are pushing at the will to power a bit here, but I think I’m going to leave that thought alone for now.