The question of control: Stoicism and radical optimism



Stoicism is a school of Athenian philosophy that emphasized the importance of managing our expectations. A central concept for Stoics is the dichotomy of control, in short, the separation of our concerns into two categories – that which we have direct control over and that which we do not have direct control over. Stoics then recommend that we ignore the second category. This sounds reductive and pop-psychological, but the things the Stoics considered in the latter category might be surprising to modern day armchair philosophers. Among those things that we should ignore according to Stoics are our reputation, the opinions of others, our health, and politics.

It is notable that the ancient Stoics did not create a third category to represent things that we have limited control over. He is an obvious critique of that doctrine: isn’t our level of control on a sliding scale? In that third category, we might place a subject like our health, over which we do not have direct control, but certainly some influence. I can choose to eat fast food everyday and not get up from my chair for a week, and that would certainly have an influence on my health. On the other hand, I cannot will myself to not have the debilitating allergies that I experience in central Texas. Modern re-imaginings of Stoicism have created a “trichotomy of control” to encapsulate this third category of semi-controlled variables. But according to the ancient Stoic tradition, you only get the two categories, and this is no accident.

I cannot directly influence my health. I cannot choose to be healthy. Nor can I choose to be unhealthy. Rather, I can choose only my behaviors adjacent to the question of my health. I can choose to cook my own meals at home with vegetables and lean meats, or I can choose to eat fast food. I can choose to go to the gym rather than stay at home and watch television. I can choose to take a job offer for a job that will have me working 80 hour work days, or I can choose to take a job that will give me ample time for exercise and eating right. These choices have significant impact on my broader health.

In this regard, the ancient Stoics had it right. The things under my direct control are limited to my daily choices, behaviors, and attitudes. Everything else – my reputation, my health, how that meeting next Tuesday is going to go – is completely out of my sphere of influence. The dichotomy of control makes sense when you root yourself firmly in the present, considering nothing except the current moment. In the omnipresent now, I have a limited set of choices, but they are numerable and clear.

The purpose of the dichotomy of control is to serve as just one tool on the toolbelt of the Stoic sage. A Stoic’s goal is happiness – not the momentary passions of a nightly bacchanal, but a sustained sense of well being and security in oneself. So we should see the dichotomy in that context.

Namely, the dichotomy offers us a tool for restricting the sphere of our concern. So instead of worrying about the outcome of a large endeavor, we instead focus on the daily decisions and tasks that must be completed in order for the greater effort to be realized. The Stoics teach that the source of our suffering – which modern condo-dwelling people might call “anxiety” or “depression” – is wanting something that we cannot have. In other words, life sucks when we want those things that are in the forbidden category of “stuff we can’t actually influence.”

We cannot control the emotional whims of the jilted lover. We cannot will our friend’s wife to think we are sophisticated. We cannot make our hairline grow back. And so on.

It is common sense, but common sense is not as commonly practiced as one might think.

Stoicism then takes a decidedly radical turn by inviting us to imagine our worst fears coming true. Not only are we forbidden from wishing and hoping to influence that which is beyond our control, we are encouraged to imagine everything going wrong. Suppose our reputation is ruined, our lover deserts us for someone better, and we get diagnosed with a terminal illness. Is it likely that a perfect storm of bad things will happen to us? Perhaps not, but it is possible. Can we imagine the worst possible outcome, and know that we would, in fact, be okay?

All too often, this is interpreted as a pessimistic attitude. In truth, it is yet another tool in the Stoic toolbelt designed to help restrict our concern to our immediate circumstances.

The modern, Oprah-esque self-help armchair philosopher may misinterpret Stoicism’s fondness for picturing negative outcomes as a desire for negative outcomes – a self-defeating attitude. According to the “law of attraction”, we can (somehow) summon tragedies by dwelling too much on possible negative outcomes. But in fact, it is anything but. Stoicism acknowledges the truth that none of us get through life without significant heartache, and it wants us to be prepared for the inevitable.

Visualizing negative outcomes allows us to train ourselves to handle tragedy, and limiting our concerns via the dichotomy of control prevents us from getting hung up on what we can’t change.

If there is any critique I have found in the Stoic way it is that it tends to discourage optimism. Very often I have found that the best way to endure daily struggles is to assume it will all work out in the end. I call this sort of perspective radical optimism and it is, in a sense, the complete opposite of Stoicism. Radical optimism means assuming that your unrequited love will someday be yours, even if the way forward is completely unclear. It means looking at global crises and trusting that eventually the situation will be worked out.

In contrast to Stoicism’s toolbelt, which seeks to narrow our concerns to the present, a radical optimist focuses on the big picture. I contend that this is not such an anti-Stoic concept. The distant future, after all, is so utterly beyond our control that to speculate about it could hardly impact our ability to cope with the present, so we may as well imagine an ideal future.

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