Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are… whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control… whatever are not our own actions.
~The Enchiridion, by Epictetus
Stoicism was a popular philosophy in ancient Greece and, later, in Rome. The Stoic Epictetus taught the above dichotomy between what is in our control and what is not. His student Arrian wrote down some of his lectures and sayings, much the way Plato wrote Socrates’s dialogues.
The power of Stoicism is its appeal to logic and its escape from the feelings of loss that anyone can experience.
Stoicism’s basic logic is summed up in the first premise of Epictetus’s Enchiridian, or Handbook; some things that effect us are not in our control. If they are not in our control, logic tells us we should not be dismayed when they act against us. Epictetus gives this direction:
With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.
The idea is to appeal to logic. Humans, even beloved ones, will die; it is their nature. Logic tells us this will happen, and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Therefore, expect it, and it will not surprise you. Other humans will be there after they are gone. Be fond of them.
Famous followers of Stoicism were Cato the Younger and Marcus Brutus. Their lives are offered as examples of heroic Roman virtue. They were truly noble, detached from worldly cares. Their pride was never broken, even when faced with terrible odds. Their trust was in logic.
Stoicism is not only attractive to those who view it from the outside; the philosophy also rewards its practitioners. Because of the divide between what is within their control and what is not, they live only one side of life, that of control. As Epictetus says, things outside your control are “by no means of such importance that it should be in [their] power to give you any disturbance.” Detachment, then, gives you command over yourself.
From here, however, it is not a far jump to pride. If we regard only those things of our own making, we define the world by ourselves, by what is in our power. We feel we have found a way to measure and control our self-worth. That is the gateway to pride. And as we’ve seen, pride is not fulfilling.
Epictetus reminds us that those things we cannot control are under the power of Fate or Providence. They have been lent to us, but they are not ours. He says, “Never say of anything, ‘I have lost it’; but, ‘I have returned it.’ Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned.”
This appeal to logic is a good reminder, but we can take it a step further. Complete detachment, as put forward by the Stoics, leads to pride. But the perfect remedy for pride is gratitude. Rather than turning our minds from those things we can’t control, as if they don’t matter, gratitude urges us to be happy even for those things we can’t control. Gratitude is happiness because someone gave it to you, because someone else is in control.
Gratitude will never turn us towards pride. True gratitude disproves Stoicism’s initial distinction; after all, there is no split between things we can control and things we can’t. Did we control our coming into being? Can we control how long we stay? If those things are given to us, what is truly ours to control? Gratitude teaches us to appreciate all things because they are given by someone who loves us.