It’s one of the biggest, most important concepts in Stoicism: the idea of control. Stoics believe that the key to a happy life is understanding exactly what’s under our power, and what isn’t . . . and that accepting what’s not in our power makes us more powerful ourselves.
The person who only desires what is actually in his complete control — for instance, our opinions, our judgments and our attitude — is much more likely to live in harmony with nature and find inner peace.
There are more Stoic quotes that have to do with this “dichotomy of control” than almost any other topic, because it’s so crucial to the entire concept of Stoic philosophy. Check out the famous quotes below, but keep in mind that there’s lots more to learn about control in Stoic teachings!
Stoic Quotes on the Dichotomy of Control from Marcus Aurelius
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. Take control of what you think about.”
“Our control and power are limited to our own thoughts.”
“Do not waste time on what you cannot control.”
“The best way to control somebody is to encourage them to be independent.”
“You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Stoic Quotes on the Dichotomy of Control from Epictetus
“It is not in our control to have everything turn out exactly as we want, but it is in our control to control how we respond to what happens.”
“The key to control is not in controlling external events, but in controlling your own mind.”
“The more you seek to control external events, the less control you will have over your own life.”
“You have control over your own thoughts and actions, but not over the thoughts and actions of others.”
“When you control your thoughts, you control your destiny.”
Stoic Quotes on the Dichotomy of Control from Seneca
“He who has control over himself has control over the world.”
“The things you really need are always within your control.”
“We have the power to control our own lives, to determine our own happiness and success.”
“Our problems are not only in our hands, but they are in our control.”
Stoic Quotes on the Dichotomy of Control from Viktor Frankl
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing . . . to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
“Decisions, not conditions, determine what a man is.”
“Every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”
“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, his unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden.”
Stoic Quotes on the Dichotomy of Control from Gaius Musonius Rufus
“Willingly accept the inevitable, and you will lead a life in harmony with the universe.”
“The soul is trained for courage when we show patience under hardships.”
“Reflect on how many things have happened that you didn’t want, and yet they turned out for the best.”
“Have a firm conviction that hardships, and even death, are not evils.”
More about the Most Famous Stoic Quotes & Philosophers
Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. Over time, this philosophy spread throughout the Roman Empire and even into modern society, where it is still widely studied and practiced.
Stoicism is rooted in the belief that virtue (such as wisdom) is the only good and that the path to virtue is through self-control, rationality, and harmony with the natural world. A wealth of quotes from Stoic philosophers have transcended time to inspire countless individuals.
Here are some of the most famous Stoic quotes and the philosophers who penned them.
“We cannot control the external events around us, but we can control our reactions to them.” – Epictetus
Epictetus, a slave who later gained his freedom, emphasized the distinction between what we can control and what we cannot. This quote encapsulates the essence of Stoic thought: while the external world is beyond our control, our internal reactions and attitudes are entirely within our jurisdiction.
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injustice.” – Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD and a stoic philosopher. His “Meditations” is a collection of personal writings in which he outlines his Stoic philosophy. This particular quote advocates for maintaining one’s integrity and character, even when wronged by others. Rather than seeking revenge, the Stoic finds solace in upholding virtue.
“He who is brave is free.” – Seneca
Seneca the Younger was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and playwright. His works are considered essential reading for anyone interested in Stoic philosophy. This quote is an encouragement to face adversity courageously; for Seneca, courage and freedom are inextricably linked. The brave individual, by confronting rather than avoiding difficulties, gains a sense of autonomy and liberty.
“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” – Epictetus
This quote from Epictetus emphasizes the importance of defining your principles and goals before taking action. It’s a reminder that in life, vision and action must go hand in hand.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” – Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius succinctly communicates the essence of Stoic action in this quote. Stoicism is not a philosophy to merely speculate upon but one to live by. The emphasis is on embodying the virtues you believe in, rather than discussing them abstractly.
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” – Seneca
This quote underlines the Stoic view that adversity is not something to be avoided but embraced. Challenges are seen as opportunities for growth and development, both mentally and morally.
“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” – Epictetus
Epictetus stresses how much of human suffering is self-inflicted through needless worrying about uncontrollable circumstances. The Stoic solution is to focus only on what one can control, primarily one’s own judgments and reactions.
“True happiness is… to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future.” – Seneca
This quote highlights the Stoic belief in the importance of living in the present moment, appreciating the ‘here and now’ without being overly concerned about future events that one cannot control.
These quotes and their authors form a mosaic that reveals the rich tapestry of Stoic philosophy, a school of thought that continues to offer profound insights into the human condition, thousands of years after its inception.
What is The Dichotomy of Control in Stoicism?
One of the most influential concepts in Stoic philosophy is the “dichotomy of control,” a principle most famously articulated by Epictetus in his “Enchiridion” (Handbook). The dichotomy of control distinguishes between things that are “up to us” (eph’ hēmin) and things that are “not up to us” (ouk eph’ hēmin). Epictetus argues that what is within our control are our own opinions, desires, aversions, and, to some extent, our own actions. Everything else, such as the actions of other people, external events, and outcomes, are not under our control.
The dichotomy of control serves as an essential guide for ethical conduct and mental well-being. By focusing solely on what we can control—mainly, our thoughts, emotions, and actions—we can remain serene and undisturbed by external events, no matter how challenging.
This doesn’t mean Stoics are passive or disengaged. On the contrary, Stoicism encourages proactive engagement with the world, but always with the understanding that the final outcomes are beyond one’s control. The aim is to do one’s best, act virtuously, and leave the rest to the unfolding of the natural world.
The dichotomy of control is not merely a philosophical abstraction but a practical mental tool that can be applied in everyday situations. For instance, if a person is stuck in traffic, getting frustrated or angry won’t change the situation, as it is outside of one’s control.
However, one can control their reaction to the event, choosing to use the time productively or simply practicing patience. In a professional context, one cannot control how colleagues act or the overall success of a project, but one can control their contributions, diligence, and integrity. By focusing on what is within one’s control, stress and anxiety can be minimized, making room for more constructive emotions and actions.
The concept of the dichotomy of control is deeply interwoven with Stoicism’s broader ethical framework. Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus employed this principle as a cornerstone of their philosophy, advocating its utility in achieving a tranquil mind and a virtuous life. Marcus Aurelius, for instance, in his “Meditations,” often reminds himself to focus on his own conduct and judgments rather than worrying about the opinions or actions of others. Seneca, too, in his essays and letters, echoes the importance of focusing on internal rather than external goods.
Stoicism offers a robust philosophical framework aimed at human flourishing, emphasizing rationality, virtue, and emotional resilience. The concept of the dichotomy of control, which delineates between what is and isn’t within our purview, serves as a vital tenet, providing practical guidance for navigating life’s complexities with equanimity and poise.