Control What You Can

Remembering this, we ought to study, not that we may change the makeup of things - for we have not the power to do it, and it is good we do not have such power - but in order that we may maintain our minds in harmony with things that happen. Can we escape from men? And if we associate with them, can we trust them? Who gives us the power? What then remains, or what method is there of relating to them? Is there such a method by which we can all act, even at cross-purposes and still conform to God's will? If you are alone, you call it loneliness. If you are with others, you call them liars and cheats. You find fault with your own parents and children, and brothers and neighbors. Rather you should see the good in your condition: when you are alone, call this tranquility and freedom. When you are with others, you ought not to call it a mob, or trouble, or be uneasy. Instead call it a celebration or an assembly, and so accept all contentedly.

If we accept the notion of the all-powerful God, then we must understand that it is He that presents us with the life we are given.

Unfortunately, we seem never to be satisfied with our lot in life. We complain if we are lonely, then we complain about our companions when they are about us. A stoic accepts the situation as God presents it to him, changing only that which it is in his power to change.

Christians praise God for what is given them and accept God's will in their lives. In some ways this seems to contradict the idea of freedom of choice. Yet, we must understand that we do have freedom within the bounds of our ability to make decisions, to say "yes" or "no" to God. God, life, other people, present us with situations, we are free in how we choose to deal with them or even to perceive them. Americans are apt to view things in a positive way. A common phrase is, "When given lemons, make lemonade." This is a trite way of saying take advantage of situations which may seem bad and make something good of them.

It is easy to misconstrue Epictetus here. He may seem to be saying that we have no ability to affect the world about us and that we must accept all that is handed to us, good and bad. This is not the case at all. What he would have us do is control that which we can control. Sometimes the only thing we can control is our attitude toward a person, thing or situation. This does not mean we must conform precisely to the circumstances around us.

In Chapter 2 we saw how Epictetus praised Agrippinus for not being bullied into joining the follies of the Emperor Nero. He chose to be of the "Purple". Accepting circumstances and understanding the factors involved in circumstances is far different than following a crowd.

Epictetus wants us to understand that it does us no good to rail at the wind and the sea (as Calligula did to punish it for delaying a projected invasion of England). This is irrational. It is not conformable to reason. Change what you can and accept the rest.

Chapter 12:

  1. On Contentment
  2. The Necessity of the Wager (12a)
  3. Control What You Can (12b)
  4. Hell Is Other People (12c)
  5. Giving Yourself Trouble (12d)
Stoicism and Christianity Index

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This is a translation and explanation of the first book of the Discourses of Epictetus. His words are in regular text, comments are in bold.

Biographical Information on Epictetus

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