Epictetus: Control What You Can—Especially Yourself

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Discourses of Epictetus" by Epictetus. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s in your control? What isn’t? How can understanding this help you make decisions and find peace in life?

Stoicism teaches how to live a happy and fulfilling life through thoughtful, rational action. According to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, control is a major aspect of this. Specifically, you must control what you can and stop worrying about the rest.

Continue reading to understand what this means and how it’s done.

What You Can Control: Beliefs, Desires, and Actions

According to Epictetus, control is a central issue of the good life. To live well, it’s important to understand what’s in your control and what isn’t; in other words, what you’re able to make choices about. This will help you keep your peace of mind because things that you can’t make decisions about aren’t worth worrying about. You can’t control them, and, therefore, your worry does you no good.

(Shortform note: Epictetus says to stop worrying about things we can’t control but doesn’t offer any practical advice on how to do so. There are simple exercises you can do when you catch yourself worrying that will help you to relax and refocus. For example, you can concentrate on taking deep, slow breaths and consciously relaxing your muscles—by physically calming your body, you’ll find that your mind calms down as well. Another useful tip is to focus on the present, which will distract you from worrying about the future; you could do this by studying the room around you and identifying various things you can see, smell, hear, and touch.)

Epictetus believes that the only thing you can fully control is your own reasoning: your beliefs, your interpretations of events, and your desires. He places particular emphasis on controlling your desires to maintain your peace of mind: If you don’t get what you want to get then you’ll be disappointed, and if you don’t avoid what you want to avoid then you’ll be unhappy. 

(Shortform note: Again, Epictetus doesn’t give any actionable advice on how to accomplish this goal of controlling what you want. In fact, modern psychology says that doing so may be impossible; desires are driven by emotion, not reason, meaning you can’t reason yourself out of them. All that you can truly control is your behavior—what you choose to do (or not do) in response to your desires.)

Furthermore, recalling his time as a slave (when someone else owned his body, but not his mind), Epictetus says that the only way to truly control someone else is to have control over the things that he or she wants. Therefore, if you desire only things that are fully in your control—such as a clear mind and strong reasoning skills—then you will always be free; no one else can control those things. Therefore, no one else can truly be your master.

To give a modern example, consider an employee working a job that he dislikes. As long as he wants the paycheck that the job provides, his superiors in the company can control what he does, because they control access to that paycheck—they could fire him if they want to. However, if he gives up his fear of losing that paycheck, he’ll be free to speak his mind and act as he sees fit—he might even be able to create positive changes at that company and thereby make his job more enjoyable. 

Control Versus Acceptance

Epictetus says that true freedom comes from disregarding anything that’s not in your control and thereby keeping control over your thoughts and feelings. In Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach takes a different view: Brach doesn’t think you can always control what you think or feel, but you can make sure your thoughts and feelings don’t control you.

Brach’s strategy is to accept everything that you experience, no matter whether it’s enjoyable or painful, internal or external. Brach’s titular practice of Radical Acceptance has two parts:

1. Recognition. Before you can accept something, you have to recognize and understand it. For example, if you feel jittery, feel short of breath, and your heart is racing, you might be experiencing anxiety—but you can’t accept that experience until you’re able to name it. 

2. Compassion. Once you understand what’s happening, the next step is to treat yourself kindly: Give yourself permission to feel whatever you’re feeling, without fighting it or trying to force yourself to feel something different. By simply accepting the experience for what it is, you’ll allow that experience to wash over you and fade away. You won’t feel compelled to react, which means that you’ll be able to thoughtfully and productively act instead.

You’re Always In Control

Along with your thoughts and beliefs, you also control your own actions. Remembering this will help you to live a virtuous life because you won’t be tempted to blame your bad choices on other people or on outside events—the only one who’s accountable for your actions is yourself.

This may seem to contradict Epictetus’s earlier point about being a slave when he said that someone else controlled his body but he was still free because he controlled his mind. However, even in this extreme situation, Epictetus’s actions were his own. He chose to obey his master because it was the most reasonable course of action; he could have chosen to disobey instead, but he decided that the consequences of doing so would be too severe and the benefits too small. 

(Shortform note: This lesson is really about autonomy: the ability to make your own decisions. People value autonomy—they become stressed, reactive, and contrarian when they feel like others are forcing choices on them. However, Epictetus teaches us that we always have autonomy, and remembering that will help stop you from making emotionally-driven decisions when others seem to encroach on your autonomy.)

Epictetus adds that, before taking any action, you should take a moment to imagine its worst possible outcome. If you decide that the action is still worth doing in spite of that risk, then do it. If the outcome is better than you imagined, you’ll be pleasantly surprised—if it’s as bad as you thought it would be, you’ll still have no reason to complain, because you’d already decided that the action was worth the risk.

(Shortform note: In How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie also suggests planning for the worst. His reasoning is that, if you figure out the worst thing that could happen and make a plan to deal with it, then you won’t need to worry anymore. Either things will work out better than you’d planned, or you’ll simply use the plan you came up with to deal with the worst outcome. In other words, both Epictetus and Carnegie say to plan for the worst so that you can act with confidence.)

Epictetus: Control What You Can—Especially Yourself

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Discourses of Epictetus summary:

  • Why you need to understand the laws of nature to be happy
  • Stoic strategies for remaining calm in the face of adversity
  • Epictetus's specific rules for living well

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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