Of the Stoic Fundamental Distinction (#1)

What’s within your control & what isn’t. What depends on you & what doesn’t. If you’ve much familiarity with Stoic philosophy, perhaps even superficially, you’re likely familiar with those phrases, two different ways of marking the same, ever so crucial difference.

It’s above all in Epictetus that the distinction features so prominently. The “Enchiridion,” a.k.a. “Handbook,” a.k.a. “Manual” of Epictetus opens with it, as does the much longer, nuanced, and contextualized Discourses of Epictetus. The distinction recurs frequently throughout, and Epictetus is clear that it’s the most important thing to have near at hand (so to speak), ready to call to mind at a moment’s notice.

This distinction is also emphasized, to great effect, in the very recent and practical Stoic activities of the Modern Stoicism team and Donald Robertson (also member of that team), such as the now well known Stoic Week events. It can also sometimes be used as part of a Logic-Based Consultation process, or in philosophical counseling / consultation / coaching more generally.

The two phrases I mentioned at the outset in fact translate the same Greek expression. The key part of that expression is the phrase eph’ hēmīn (ἐφ’ ἡμῖν). This is what’s usually translated as “within our control” or “depends on us.”

I thought it might be worth considering some of the different ways, including the two already mentioned, in which this distinction might be translated into English. (I’m going to use singular forms rather than plurals such as “our.”)

  • What’s within your control & what’s not within your control.
  • What’s in your power & what’s not in your power.
  • What depends on you & what doesn’t depend on you.

The above three are all quite common and standard. Each is a perfectly good translation, so far as translations go. Part of what interests me is the subtle, or maybe even not so subtle, shifts of meaning that go with each.

I would be very interested hear anyone else’s reflections on the shifts in meaning among the above three ways of phrasing it. Even if you don’t know a thing about Stoicism! I’m curious about the way those sound in English, to anyone.

  • What’s on you & what’s not on you.

This one is very colloquial. As when someone says “That’s not on me,” or “That’s on him now,” etc., referring either to control over something, responsibility for something, or both. At the moment, I’m not sure if I’ve read this one elsewhere, or if it’s just something I came up with. (I feel like others must use it sometimes though, it seems too obvious….)

  • What you have authority over & what you don’t have authority over.
  • What’s in your possession & what’s not in your possession.
  • What’s your responsibility & what’s not your responsibility.

These last three are, well . . . they’re at least much less common. At the very least, Epictetus plays with these possible senses of the words, as you’ll see if you read the Discourses with them in mind (even the first chapter of the first book). They’re a little different than the first four, but, I have to think they are part of what Epictetus means.

If you’re into Stoicism, or for that matter if you begin to learn about it, I humbly suggest that sometimes you try sort of rotating through all these different ways of expressing the Stoic fundamental distinction.

Has anyone read other ways of expressing the distinction? Does anyone have other ways that you like to think of it yourself, when using this distinction in your own life?