What is Up to Us?

Posted by Byron Pendason on February 4, 2024 CE, in , ,

Wes hāl!1 In Stoicism, the dichotomy of control is a fundamental concept. At least that’s what I had been led to believe. A recent discussion on r/Stoicism challenged this concept though, and I found the discussion enlightening.

Basically, the dichotomy of control is based upon a mistranslation of the Enchiridion. William Abbot Oldfather in 1928 translated the first sentence of the Enchiridion as “Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control.” Before Oldfather, it had generally been translated as “in our power” or “depends upon us”, or something similar.2

The phrase in question is “ἐφ’ ἡμῖν” (eph hēmin). The best translation for it that I’ve come across is “up to us”. The blog Living Stoicism has a shorter post and a longer post that explores this topic, and I’d encourage you to read through one of them (or better yet, both of them!).

Another thoughtful discussion about the dichotomy of control can be found on the Modern Stoicism blog. To quote that blog post:

There is no mention here of ‘control’, and this was on purpose. The Stoics were much more concerned with causes, than with the concept of ‘controlling’ other things. Imagine someone insults me and I get incredibly angry. The relevant question for the Stoics is what ‘caused’ the anger? What does the anger depend on? They would say that the anger depends upon me. My beliefs and interpretations of the situation caused it. This is shown by the fact that someone else can get called the exact same nasty name and not get angry at all. So since I am the cause of my anger, it is my job to fix or resolve the anger. Does the other person’s mean comment depend upon me? Did I cause it? No, it caused by that person’s character, and thus they are the person responsibility for changing it.

So, instead of thinking of the so-called dichotomy of control as dividing things between that which is within our control and that which is not, we should instead be thinking of things that are up to us and things that are not up to us. Let’s revise the first paragraph of the Enchiridion with this in mind:

Of things, some are up to us and others are not. Things up to us are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Not up to us are body, property, reputation, command, and, in a word, whatever are not our own actions.

The distinction may be subtle, but I think it’s an important distinction. When thinking in terms of what we control, we naturally want to let go of things that aren’t in our control. But if we think of things in terms of being up to us and not up to us, we are more likely to think “If this thing isn’t up to me, what is up to me?” The answer is, our thoughts about said subject. Once we change our thoughts on said subject, or feelings about it (and ultimately, our actions) will naturally follow. And we can spread those thoughts to others by discussing those thoughts with them.

I am going to end this blog post by listing the above resources so that you can easier access them, if you do choose. I’d encourage you to read through them, and feel free to give me your thoughts in the comments below!

Beo gesund!1

  1. Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell.  2

  2. There’s a version of the Enchiridion you will find online that is attributed to Elizabeth Carter that translates this sentence as “Some things are in our control and others not.” However, one can compare this with an archived copy of her translation to find that this is not how she translated this sentence. The first paragraph of her translation is:

    OF things, some are in our power and others not. In our power are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever are our own actions. Not in our power are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.