In a recent sermon I did on Stoic philosophy I shared various pieces of Stoic wisdom. The sermon was very well received and upon reflection, I’ve decided to give that sermon some “legs” by expanding on Stoic wisdom in my blog posts. This, then, is the first installation of several honoring the Stoics who, millennia ago, bequeathed to us the most practical philosophy of all. The first piece of Stoic wisdom about which I will reflect expresses the most fundamental principle of Stoic philosophy. It was Epictetus who said:
The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually do control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals but within myself to the choices that are my own…
There are two basic themes in this citation. First, the Stoics divided the world into two realms, that which is outside of oneself and that which is inside of oneself, in other words, the external/objective world and the internal/subjective world. On the surface this may seem obvious but the reality is that most people do not truly recognize this distinction, which is evidenced by the emotional reactivity people display in reaction to external events. Take a moment and demonstrate this to yourself by means of a thought experiment, such as the following.
Imagine that a friend or coworker somehow offends you, perhaps insulting you by calling you lazy or insinuating that you are overly critical. Of course you will have a reaction to your coworker, typically defensive in nature, as ego preservation is the first order of business for us all. But if you think about it you have very little, if any control over how your friend/coworker behaves toward you (unless you choose to make the interpersonal dynamics of that relationship your personal project, something against which the Stoics would advise). That person is reacting to you from their own subjective experience, which you cannot control. Nevertheless, you react. And there is the Stoic rub! It is pointless, counsel the Stoics, to react to matters over which you have no control, be it an interpersonal dynamic or a world event (perhaps a tragic event you see on the news but which is so far removed from you in space and time that you could not have affected the outcome). In fact, not only is it pointless to react to matters over which you have no control, it is psychologically debilitating and often leads to personal misery. This leads to the second theme in this citation…
Epictetus says that we should look for good and evil within ourselves. What he means by this is that good and evil are our very reactions to events – “choices that are my own.” Unlike the first theme, which on the surface seems obvious, this theme is not so much. It equates our reactions with choices that are our own. Really? Yes! Though our reactions occur with lightning speed and as such seem to be something over which we have no control (“The devil made me do it!” Flip Wilson would say), we actually have choice over them, once we come to understand the truth of the first theme discussed. We can choose not to react to external events. It takes wisdom and practice, but the truth is that we can become self-aware enough to distill a reaction before it overtakes us. Indeed, this ability is what lead people to think of the Stoics as radically detached. They weren’t. They were simply very good at nonattachment, a whole different animal than detachment.
Much more could be said about this piece of Stoic wisdom but I will leave the subject here, with the following quick summary of this fundamental principle of Stoic philosophy. Recognizing that we cannot control external events we are to focus on our own subjective experience, managing our reactivity by means of which we avoid personal misery and discover the contentment that psychological freedom brings.
I am Dr. Riegel, minister at Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church. Enjoy my occasional blog posts here, which may cover subjects ranging from spirituality to psychology to ethics to social justice to church life and beyond...