Side Note: I wrote this sometime last year and never posted it. So here goes.
This essay, as the title points out, is a look at the Epictetus’s dichotomy of control and Irvine’s trichotomy of control. More to the point, just who the hell is right, anyway?
Let’s look at Epictetus first.
Epictetus is straightforward about things. He says some things are in our control and some things aren’t in our control. And that’s it. Okay, it’s more than that, though not much more.
There’s only two things in our control: our opinions and our will. So whatever isn’t our opinion isn’t in our control. Will is our ability to influence over the world, including our own actions.
Irvine is more nuanced in his idea. To him, there’s three things: things in our control, things not in our control, and things we have limited control over.
The example he gives is someone practicing for a tennis match. By practicing, our tennis player is exerting some control over the outcome because the player is improving their game. Ultimately, however, winning the match comes down to a lot of uncontrollable factors, such as if the weather plays in anyone’s favor, if the opponent is better or cheats, whatever.
The problem with Irvine’s trichotomy is that the third category is actually a part of things we control. We control if we practice or not, because it’s of our opinion that we can improve our game and we have the will to make ourselves do it. But as Irvine himself points out, the outcome isn’t up to the tennis player. So did the tennis player really exert control over fate? No. All they did was improved themselves, not their outcome.
Personally, it feels like Irvine is attempting to lessen the feelings of fate in Stoicism. If we have limited control over the world, it isn’t as big or strong as it seems.
What it comes down to is Irvine’s trichotomy tries to make more categories of control than needed. For clarity, let’s go back to an old Stoic staple, the Stoic archer.
The old Stoics said that the archer didn’t control if their arrow hit the target or not. All the archer had control over was how much effort they put into doing their best. Practicing archery is one such way the archer could put effort into hitting the target. Yet there isn’t any amount of practice that will make that arrow hit.
This doesn’t make the archer’s practice worthless. For what it’s worth, the archer improves by practicing. And while the archer that practices has a better chance of hitting their target, once that arrow leaves, it isn’t up to the archer anymore.
For all the blustering I just did, there’s one caveat that turns all this around and makes Irvine right.
See, for Epictetus to be right, you must accept the traditional Stoic position on fate: that everything is up to the gods. No amount of practice would matter. If the gods wanted you to hit your target or win your tennis game, so be it. You could practice, but for your own sake.
However, a lot of atheist Stoics don’t buy this concept of fate. For them, fate is more like probability. There are certain odds of doing something and a certain odds of doing said thing successfully. So, going back to the archer, you have certain odds of hitting the target. You can’t know the exact number as it involves a lot of unseen factors. However, you can improve your odds in different ways, such as practicing, buying a better bow, better arrows, and so on. Here, Irvine is right. We can change the odds—perhaps even in our favor—and so we have some control over the world.
How you see fate determines who is right, and who is wrong. Believe fate is divinely determined, and Epictetus is right. Believe fate is numbers, and Irvine is right.
I’ll be frank. When I started out on this, I was attempting to prove Irvine wrong. In fact, over at the Mountain Stoic (who has a wonderful post on this very subject), I commented that I disagreed with Irvine. However, having taken the time to think over how things played out, I had no choice but to agree with Irvine. I’m an atheist Stoic, you see. I’m one of those that see fate as probability. Given that you can change probability into your favor (such as by practicing), I had to concede. For me, Irvine is right: I have some control over external events.
However, this doesn’t mean I have to get wrapped up in the outcome of said external events. I still do not make something happen. I can only improve the odds of making something happen.
And I’ve yet another thought on the subject! Whilst working, I got to thinking about the fact that we can’t know the odds to any event. Sure, there are some smart people out there that can make a good guess at it. But as anyone who’s lost a sure bet knows, there isn’t anything concrete about odds.
Now, seeing as the numbers are a total mystery to us and even something that is “sure” to happen can be screwed up, it’s fair to say that we don’t really know the numbers. And what is the difference between not knowing the numbers and having no control over the outcome? Nothing.
In this sense, Epictetus is right. No amount of planning can give you a sureness to the world around you. You can, however, have a sureness about the fact you practiced. In fact, you can say that at the very least, you tried to improve your odds and still accept that it’s not up to you to succeed in what you do.
Okay, that’s it. I’m done. Here’s what I got.
The Dichotomy is right if: you think something like God or Fate controls everything or you think the uncertainty of odds makes it impossible to put the odds in your favor due to too many other unforeseeable events.
The Trichotomy is right if: despite not being able to know the odds, you think you can influence them through your actions.
For me, the dichotomy proves true.