To illustrate this concept, I use a model that I refer to as the Onion Will Model. Here’s how it works. Visualize everything that could possibly be thought of as being within your locus of control as an onion. Being an onion, it has layers, lots of layers. No, this isn’t a cake, and it’s not a parfait. It’s an onion. In that sense, we’re just like the ogres in Shrek.
The outermost layer of this onion is made up of those things that are barely eligible to be thought of as being in any way under your control. Even the slightest philosophical introspection would have you realize how fragile your control over these this really is. If you own a company, for example, this layer would include what your company does. You give your instructions to your employees, and the general expected course is that your employees follow your instructions.
Of course, there’s nothing unreasonable about expecting things to flow in this manner. However, to expect things to go that way is one thing. To take it for granted is another. There are a ton of things, ranging from the defiance or simple absence of an employee crucial to an action all the way to government seizure. All of these things can happen to any boss, and many of them are especially likely to happen to bosses who take control of their company for granted.
In short, things of this outermost layer really aren’t things that you control – and the only times that it would be at all sound to think of these things as being within your locus of control would be when you really need to shorthand your thoughts.
As you go into the layers beneath the skin of the onion, you find things that are less and less removed from your direct control. And just as there are multiple layers beneath the skin, these things too you have varying degrees of control over.
For example, let’s say that you are summoning an elevator. The elevator generally will come in response to your summons – but there are things that can interfere with that. The elevator could be broken, or it could be down for repair.
All this is true – but regardless of the elevator’s condition, you can always press the button to summon it. Right? Well, generally you can, but there are things that can interfere with that as well. The button could be out of your reach – or you may have suffered an injury that prevents you from moving your arm at will. Also, there may be factors that put pressing that button in conflict with other things that you need to be doing – like if your hands are full.
But eventually you get to the point at which your mind sends signals to your body instructing it what to do. Many philosophers have written as though this is where you reach the walls of your Inner Citadel, which is the seat of your will, the one place where you can truly be free if you so choose. However, a closer examination of human nature shows that even past here, the onion has more layers before you reach its core.
I first came up with the Onion Will model while trying to formulate how to deal, as a Stoic, with something like Attention Deficit Disorder. Attention Deficit Disorder is one example of a condition that presents a special problem for versions of Stoic philosophy that see the Inner Citadel as encompassing the entire mind. What you are paying attention to is an act of the mind. Therefore, if you are not paying attention to what you are supposed to be paying attention to, it would follow that you are failing to act virtuously.
However, sometimes where our attention is focused isn’t entirely voluntary. This can be the case for anyone, but especially for someone with Attention Deficit. If the thing that someone needs to be focused on isn’t particularly captivating, someone with Attention Deficit is prone to see their focus wander off to something more interesting.
But when we realize that what we are paying attention to is in a layer of our mind outside of the Inner Citadel, we see that we should attribute virtue to things that are deeper in the mind – such as where we initially direct our attention – or whether we are committed to redirecting our attention back to where it needs to be whenever we become aware that it has wandered away.
The Onion Will model more recently became relevant again in a series of discussions regarding emotional impulses that have the potential of hijacking our faculty of reason – anger in particular.
You can have a full theoretical understanding of Stoic philosophy and still get upset at times. Someone may be giving you trouble at work – or a cause that you care about is threatened. Whatever it is, something happens beyond your control. You know and understand all the reasons given by Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus as to why it shouldn’t bother you – but nonetheless, it does.
In such cases, seeing the Inner Citadel as encompassing the entire mind can be very counterproductive. No matter how much you analyze the situation and realize that it is merely what Stoics call a “dispreferred indifferent”, you’re still miffed. If you insist that the anger is in your locus of control, this can result in self-blame – and the only thing that that can achieve is to add to the frustration. Or, you might end up trying to will the anger away – but the most that that would do is to repress it, the mental equivalent of sweeping dirt under the rug.
Realizing, however, that there are layers of control even in your mind, you have other options. You can observe and take note of your anger, all the while realizing that though it infects the outer layers of your mind, it isn’t from or of your will and doesn’t have to be allowed into it. That approach may not necessarily make your anger go away – but at very least, it will lessen its control over you.