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What Is “Up to Us”? – Episode 6


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Epictetus, the freed slave turned Stoic philosopher and teacher, said the following: Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Enchiridion 1) In episode 5 of the Stoicism On Fire podcast, I covered the practice of attention (prosoche), which is, according to the philosopher Pierre Hadot, the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude.[1] In this podcast, I will cover the category of things to which we are to pay attention—those are the things that are within our complete control. The popular term for this concept is the Dichotomy of Control, which Epictetus distinguished as what is and is not“up to us” (eph’ hêmin). Pierre Hadot called this distinction the fundamental rule of life for the Stoic practitioner.[2] Therefore, when we focus our attention on what is “up to us”, we combine the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude with the fundamental rule of life and end up with what Hadot calls the fundamental Stoic attitude or Stoic moral attitude. This attitude is what enables us to make progress along the Stoic path—the path of the prokopton. Hadot defines this fundamental Stoic attitude in detail. Referring to Enchiridion1.1, Hadot writes: Here, we can glimpse one of the Stoics' most fundamental attitudes: the delimitation of our own sphere of liberty as an impregnable islet of autonomy, in the midst of the vast river of events and of Destiny. What depends on us are thus the acts of our soul, because we can freely choose them. We can judge or not judge, or judge in whatever manner we please; we can desire or not desire; will or not will. By contrast, that which does not depend on us—Epictetus lists our body, honors, riches, and high positions of authority—is everything that depends upon the general course of nature. Our body, first: it is true that we can move it, but we are not completely in control of it. Birth, death, sickness, involuntary movements, sensations of pleasure or of pain: all these are completely independent of our will. As for wealth and honors: we can, to be sure, attempt to acquire them, yet definitive success does not depend upon us, but upon a series of human factors and events which are exterior to us; they are imponderable and do not depend upon our will. Thus, the Stoic delimits a center of autonomy—the soul, as opposed to the body; and a guiding principle (hegemonikon) as opposed to the rest of the soul. It is within this guiding principle that freedom and our true self are located.[3] The key phrase in that passage from Hadot’s book The Inner Citadel is “the impregnable islet of autonomy.” As we consider what is and is not “up to us” it is easy to see this fundamental rule of life as limiting. However, throughout the Discourses and Enchiridion, Epictetus teaches this rule for the opposite reason. It is by understanding what is and is not “up to us” that we can find true freedom. It is not an accident that Epictetus, a freed slave, emphasizes this rule and the freedom it provides—he understood the nature and value of true freedom as a result of high life experience. The Stoics understood that externals cannot bring us the well-being we seek. Possessing them is indifferent with regard to our moral character; however, desiring them and pursuing them is the path to psychological anguish. Why? Because they can all be taken away in a moment—in a fire, a life-threatening illness, a hostile take-over of a company, a layoff, a market crash, a divorce, a terrible accident, etc. They may make us temporarily happy, but that is not what the Stoics meant by the Greek word eudaimonia. The eudaimonia of the Stoics was the sense of well-being that comes from the pursuit of virtue, or human excellence in the areas of wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation.

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