This distinction is especially important in light of accusations that some have made that the Stoic philosophy is at odds with important activities such as resisting tyrannical regimes or campaigning for social justice. Those making the accusation assume that since Stoicism teaches us to accept our lack of control over how these things turn out in the end, it follows that the philosophy discourages us from doing anything about these things. However, with his bathhouse example, Epictetus teaches us that accepting our lack of control over an external end-result is not at all at odds with doing what we can do to affect it.
In the example that Epictetus gives, the external that one is attempting to achieve is to get clean in a bath. Here is how he puts it:
Now, at this point, some contextual information is required. In today’s society it is very common for one to have a bath tub, or at least a shower, in one’s own home. In Epictetus’s time, however, only a few very privileged people had anything of the sort. This meant that in one’s effort to get clean, one generally had to beat the crowd for one’s turn to get into the bath. In short, if you would attempt to take a bath, actually succeeding to do so would not be assured.
This can be a bit difficult for us to relate to today. In our time, when we attempt to wash our bodies, the biggest threat to our succeeding to do so are plumbing issues. And while such plumbing issues do occur, and include anything from a water main bursting to the building’s plumbing being down for maintenance, such issues are not all that common. They are so rare that we tend not to think of them except for when they occur. For this reason, today, we are at high risk of making the mistake (and it is a mistake) of taking our ability to clean ourselves for granted.
In Epictetus’s time, the lack of any true control anyone had over their ability to clean themself was significantly more obvious than it is today – which made his example of the bathhouse a particularly powerful illustration of a key concept in the Dichotomy of Control – the distinction between the ability to attempt an external and the ability to achieve that same external.
Due to the uncertainty of the ability to bathe, Epictetus counsels the student to not place all of their hope in managing to actually bathe. For that reason he teaches the student to focus their desire on keeping the will in harmony with nature. However, despite all that – he does not at all discourage the student from attempting to bathe. The student is still to do everything appropriate for one who prefers to bathe – merely accepting that the bathing plans might not come to fruition.
Furthermore, if one reads the Discourses (the more in-depth record of Epictetus’s teachings) he devotes an entire chapter to this distinction in the dichotomy of control. This distinction is the topic of Book 2, Chapter 5 of the Discourses. In this chapter, Epictetus gives the illustration of a game of dice. How the game turns out, whether you win or lose, depends on many things outside of your control. But does that mean that you mustn’t use what is in your control to at least make a good attempt to win? On the contrary – not only are you permitted to make your best effort to win, but you are required to do so. To fail to do so isn’t synonymous to acceptance of the outcome no matter what it be. Rather, to not make your best effort to win is to fail to utilize that which truly is in your control – your will.
So next time someone says that Stoicism is a philosophy designed to preserve the status quo – that it prevents people from striving to change society for the better – all you need to do is turn to the right section of the Enchiridion, or the right chapter of the Discourses, and know that their understanding of Stoicism is wrong.
Of course – in reality, the situations that we face are often complex. Sifting the things that are securely ours from those which are not doesn’t always seem straightforward to the untrained mind. However – one can learn to be able to sift these two categories apart in any situation. I intend to discuss the way to do this in the near future – in a later article.