Enchiridion by Epictetus, chapter 1 – What is in my power?

The distinction

I  drive around the town in my car, minding my own business. I am a diligent driver; I maintain my vehicle properly, follow all the rules and practice caution. Still an unexpected can happen. Someone else may crash my car. I might make a mistake. The damn Bimmer can break down and leave me on the roadside.

A person can take really good care of oneself, doing everything “right”. Most likely that will benefit their health and make them live longer and happier. Still a cancer, stroke or an accident can ruin their health unexpectedly or they may die suddenly.

That could be you or someone you love.

And you my friend, might tomorrow go to a meeting at work, ready to collaborate with everyone. Your intention is to show up with a great attitude; be helpful, friendly and get things done. Then in walks that guy/gal from the other department, the one who wants to make everything as difficult as it can be.

What do you do, how will this influence you? Has your choice been taken from you? Surely you can do nothing but act on your frustration?

Epictetus says: “Nope“.

You must make a clear distinction of what is “up to you” and what is not.

Your own best effort to improve traffic safety is in your control, but the outcome is not. You influence the it with your own actions but you do not control it.

Your best effort to improve your health is in your power, but the outcome ultimately is not.  You can decide some things but not all of them.

Your own attitude, when entering the meeting room, is in your control. The contribution of others is not. You can control your own thoughts, words and deeds, not theirs. You can control your responses, both verbal and emotional, to their words and deeds. You influence the tone and the outcome of the negotiation with your own behavior but you do not control it.

In all these things and in all other things there are forces at play that are not under our control. Under our control however, are always our deliberate thoughts and our deliberate actions.

 The characteristics

Sometimes it may feel like our desires, aversions, choices or certain thoughts are imposed on us, but we in fact do have control over them. If I make a decision to something or to stop doing something, that is my choice. Yes, there are external circumstances that sometimes put obstacles on our way or even stop us, but for the part that is our own deliberate doing, the choice is ours. So the things under our control are by nature free, unhindered and unimpeded, the are “up to us” and our own.

We might sometimes feel like we are, or wish we were, controlling things that really are not under our control. In these things the control is not real. We may have a certain level of influence, but not control. Your body is a good example. You can work out and eat right but still become sick. You can take great care of yourself and put a lot of effort into your looks but you will age and eventually die. So the things not under our control are by nature weak, slavish, subject to hindrance by other things and people, they are not “up to us” and not our own.

The importance

If you mix the two and do forget to be mindful of the main distinction, then according to Epictetus, you will be hampered and you will suffer. Things and people are going to get in your way.

We are often tempted to overlook this. Sometimes other people try to pressure you to do things you do not want to do or blame you for things not under your control.

The advertising industry creates fake needs and tries to convince you that your happiness depends on your popularity and your popularity depends on buying their product. If you get the distinction wrong –  if you think that you are going to become one of the cool kids by buying something, you are setting yourself up for a big disappointment.

Do not get harmed

If you put the bulk of your attention to where it belongs; to minding your own deliberate thoughts and your own deliberate actions and worry much less about things outside your control, other people and things will not be able to push you around in any meaningful way or force or compel you.

They can still hurt you in many ways but what really matters – what you believe is right and wrong, what you think, who you really are and how do you respond to situations – will still be yours and chosen by you. The only way someone can force you in these things is if you on some level collaborate in the process. If it is “up to me”, no-one or nothing than me can keep me from doing it and no-one  or nothing can force me to do it.

If you choose to desire wrong things, it makes you a target for being compelled or seduced, but that is again your choice! The only way you can be compelled is if you give in, and you will give in if you mistake what is under your control for what is not under you control.

Do not get hindered

The other benefit of keeping this distinction in your mind is that then no-one can hinder you. You may have been frustrated sometimes because you want to do something and someone or something is keeping you from it. Anyone who has experienced road traffic as a driver probably knows an example or two. If you keep this main distinction in mind, things will not get in your way so much. If you can decide to go from place A to place B tomorrow 10 o´clock if nothing prevents it (fate permitting), recognizing that there are things outside your control, instead of thinking that things must absolutely go your way, you will be much less disturbed if plans change and things do not work out.

It is the difference between your car being hindered vs you being hindered. It is the difference between “a catastrophe of you being late” vs  “just life happening”.

In both cases you will be late but the level of hindrance and suffering you will experience is different.

So what is “you” ?

If you think that “you” are you body, you can easily be harmed. If you think that “you” is your property, you can be very easily, likely and quite often harmed. What about your reputation? Is that “up to you”, is it “you?

Get it right

So the choice is yours; understand the human nature and get it right!

(No-one gets it right first time and every time but we can make progress every day)

Focus on the things that are under you your control, that are “up to you”.

This alone can bring freedom and happiness.

How to do this?

I hope that by now you are convinced that it is essential to differentiate between things that are your doing and not your doing, up to you and not up to you. Next you’ll probably wonder “what am I to do then?”.

Do this

1) Stay aware of what goes on in your head so that you will catch an impression early on.

2)  Recognize that you are having an impression about something – it’s not The Reality, it is your impression. It may be a thought, a feeling an opinion or an observation that you feel compelled to interpret one way or the other or a reaction to an event or to a person. Instead of rushing in to believing the impression straight away, say rather: “You are an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be.”

3) Examine it. Is it about something that is under your control of not?

4) If it is about things under your control; deal with it, fix it or what ever the situation requires. Act on it.

5) If it is about things not under your control, be ready to say: “It is nothing to me.”

The lessons

  • Some things are in our control and others not.
  • Under our control: Conception, opinion, choice, desire, aversion -everything that is our own doing.
  • Not under our control: Body, property, reputation, office – everything that is not our own doing.
  • Things under our control are by nature free, unhindered and unimpeded – they are our “own”.
  • Thing not under our control are weak, servile (slavish), subject to hindrance and not our own.  They are “not our own”.
  • If you think that what is naturally slavish to be free and what is not your own to be your own, you will suffer (you will blame both gods and men!)
  • If you think only what is your to be your own and what is not your own to be not your own, no harm can be done to you, you will have no enemies and you will blame no-one.  You will not do anything against your will.
  • This alone can bring you freedom and happiness.
  • To achieve this, you must work for it and give up some things, either temporarily or permanently.
  • Say to every impression: “You are an external impression and not at all the thing you appear to be!”
  • Test the impression: is it about something that is under our control or not. If it relates to things not in our power, be ready to say: “It is nothing to me.”

The text

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men.

But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.”And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

Sources, inspiration and more material

Epictetus, the Enchiridion – Commentary chapter 1  – by Dr. Greg Sadler


Dr. Greg Sadler’s course “Epictetus’ Enchiridion – Ancient Philosophy & Peace of Mind”

The Enchiridion by Epictetus

A blog post by Massimo Pigliucci 


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