The Illusion We Have About What We Can Control— My Stoic Musings 013

“We control our reasoned choice and all acts that depend on that moral will. What’s not under our control are the body and any of its…

“We control our reasoned choice and all acts that depend on that moral will. What’s not under our control are the body and any of its parts, our possessions, parents, siblings, children, or country — anything with which we might associate.” — Epictetus, Discourses, 1.22.10

Perception. Action. Will. Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus repeatedly remind us that these are the only three things that are truly in our control. Everything else is out of every human’s control. When we are born and what part of the world we take birth in are random at best. Our height and our physique are governed by our genetics and so is our IQ up to a certain extent. We could lose a limb or develop an ailment on any random date in the calendar. Within a flash, we could lose all our possessions to an earthquake or a tsunami or a fire. We could be the happiest person on the planet and a bus could hit us when we go out to buy some milk. Our country could kick us out any day at the will of some authoritarian egomaniac. Our parents could disown us and our siblings could simply stop talking to us out of spite. We could lose our job and our bank account could get wiped out because of a glitch. I don’t write these things to paint a depressing picture of the world and of life. As Jordan Peterson said, life certainly is full of suffering and malevolence and there are truly evil people out there that could mess us up real bad. A quick glance at history and we can all remember the tragedies of Stalin’s USSR, Hitler’s Germany, and Mao’s China. We can also remember the fire that burned Rome and the fire that burned London. We can remember the tsunamis that have swallowed Japan so many times. We can also remember someone we knew who was perfectly ok one day and died in a car accident the next day. There are truly an endless number of ways our life could be ruined and the stoic’s knew this reality of life. The Stoics were aware of the fickleness of life and prosperity and happiness. Seneca was exiled, Epictetus was a slave, and Marcus Aurelius saw Rome struggle with the Antonine plague. Yet, they survived these tragedies because they truly understood the essence of stoicism. They understood all these tragedies were simply not under their control. They accepted their own humanity. They accepted the fact they they must focus on what they can control. They could control how they perceived those tragedies. They could control how they would act in the face of those tragedies. They could control their own willpower to act. Put simply, they could only control their own choices that were made using their own logic and reasoning. The illusion of controlling anything else beyond that was simply let go.


This article is a part of my Stoic Musings challenge, inspired by the book “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, where I take a quote from the book and reflect on it, every day.