This article is part of the weekly series ‘In Good Spirits’. New articles will be published every Saturday.
“Of the things that exist, some are within our control, and others are not”
We have set as our goal in this series to make an effort to get in good spirits: to worry less and enjoy more. So far, we have established that, in order to reach this goal, we should live according to Nature. And following Nature means acting with reason. Today, we will start to discover why this is true. More precisely, we will see that we can always reach our goals, if we establish them with reason. I know ‘always reaching your goals’ is quite a promise to make, but you won’t be disappointed.
Categories of control
I’ve mentioned in the first article that we don’t control everything. In fact: there is only one thing that we have complete control over. This is our mind, with its ability to use reason. This may sound bad, but it is actually great news. Because we control our mind, we control our happiness. In the words of Epictetus, only our faculty of reason “is capable of understanding both itself (…) and all the other faculties too”. It is “the best faculty of all, the one that rules over all the others”. And we control it. So, by using our faculty of reason, we control everything, including our happiness, our worry and our joy. By using our reason, we can get in good spirits.
Our mind can only be affected if we allow it to be affected.
Let’s take a closer look at what exactly is in our control and what is not. The Encheiridion opens with the famous words: “Of the things that exist, some are within our control, and others are not. Within our control are opinion, aspiration, desire, aversion, and, in short: whatever are our own actions. Not within our control are body, property, reputation, employment, and, in short: whatever are not our own actions”. Following this, ancient Stoics distinguished two categories: things that are within our control and things that are outside our control. To be happy, we should accept the latter as facts and focus on our command of the first. Indeed, the things within our control are all related to our mind. These are ‘internal’ events, while the things outside our control are ‘external’ events. Everything that is external can be taken away from us: our body can be mutilated or killed, our property can be stolen or destroyed, or reputation can be broken, our employment can be terminated. But our mind can only be affected if we allow it to be affected. It can’t be burnt or shot, for it governs itself. This is why it is the only thing that is truly in our control.
So we should only focus on the matters of our mind? And we should accept everything else around us? That seems like a quite unrealistic, passive and – honestly – stupid thing to do. Can we not work to earn money and increase our wealth? Can we not exercise and improve our body? Of course we can. So we control our wealth and our body? Well… not exactly. We can work for money, but lose it in an instant. We can exercise our body and still get a serious disease. So you might say we can influence external events, but not control them completely. This is why modern Stoicism acknowledges a third category of control.
The third category
The first category is made up from internal events: those that are completely within our control. As we have seen, there is really only one: our mind, with is capacity for reason. The second category consists of external events that we have no control over whatsoever. These are things like volcanic eruptions or the sunrise. The third category, however, is the most difficult one. This is the category of things we can influence, but not determine.
To get happy, we should accept external events as they are
and focus on things we can control or influence
To get happy, we should accept external events as they are and focus on things we can control or influence. Worrying about volcanic eruptions is useless. Instead, we should accept the eruption as a fact and react to it in a reasonable way (I would suggest you try to escape it). The eruption itself is completely outside of our control, but our reaction to it is not. We can either let the disaster take us down or we can stand up and fight. When we choose to fight (or in this case, run), we must accept the fact that our fight may be in vain. We may be too late to run, or the vulcanic eruption may turn out to be bigger than expected. But we can do our best. This is exactly the reaction modern Stoicism advocates for dealing with the third category. If we are faced with things that we don’t control, yet can influence, we should do our best. If such a thing is worth pursuing, we should try our hardest to reach it, while accepting the fact that no matter how hard we try, we might fail.
Internalization of goals
I promised you a way to always reach your goals. I intend to honor that promise. The trick is establishing your goals with reason. Think about the three categories we have distinguished: controlled things, uncontrolled things and influenceable things. Dealing with the first two categories is rather straightforward: focus on what you control and accept as a fact what you don’t control. As for the third category, we should distinguish between (1) reaching something, and (2) doing your best to reach it. The first is not a good goal, since the fulfillment of that goal depends on external circumstances. You can run from the volcano, but it might still hit you. The second goal, however, is a different one. This type of goal is not about the result (being safe from the eruption), but about your own effort (running away from it). Only you determine whether you achieve this goal or not. If you don’t run, you fail. If you run, you succeed, no matter the result. Replacing result-oriented goals with effort-oriented goals is called internalization of goals. Instead of allowing outside interference, you alone determine whether you fail or succeed. You turn your goal from an external one (gaining a result) to an internal one (committing to do you best). And in this way, you always have the ability to reach your goals. It is up to you.
Make your goals dependent on yourself only,
and you can always succeed in reaching them
So, a wrong goal would be to get your body weight down with 5 kilograms. A good goal would be to eat healthier and exercise more: doing your best to lose weight. Even if you do all this and don’t lose weight, then you’ve done everything you can and you can be happy about it. Because what else could you have done? A wrong goal would be to quit smoking. A good goal would be to do everything that is in your power to smoke less or nothing. If you do everything you can, what else is there to do? Make your goals dependent on yourself only, and you can always succeed in reaching them. Consider what is in your control and what is not. Focus on the things you control, and you have the power to be happy.
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In addition to this article, I highly recommend to read chapter five of William Irvine’s book ‘A Guide to the Good Life’. His explanation of control and goal internalization has inspired me greatly.
- Early Stoics distinguished between things that we control and things that we don’t control.
- Modern Stoics acknowledge a third category of things that we don’t completely control, but can influence.
- To reach your goals and get happy, focus your attention on the things you control first, and the things you can influence second. Accept the things you don’t control as facts.
- Regarding the things you can only influence, internalize your goals: get them under your control. Do not focus on the result, but on your effort to reach it.
- Because we control our mind with its capacity for reason, we control our happiness.
This is part 3 of the series ‘In Good Spirits’. This is a series of longer posts in which we discover the foundations of Stoicism, so that we may ultimately gain ‘eudaimonia’: a good spirit.