Your health is not under your control — A reminder

Philosophy as a Way of Life
5 min readMay 13, 2021
[image: yours truly, selfie at the emergency room]

As regular readers know very well, one of the foundational passages in ancient Stoic literature is found right at the beginning of Epictetus’ Manual:

Some things are up to us, while others are not. Up to us are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not up to us are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Enchiridion 1.1)

The passage introduces what is often called the dichotomy of control, though it should probably be renamed the dichotomy of responsibility, or the dichotomy of agency. The point Epictetus is making is that what is “up to us” is, in reality, pretty limited: our explicitly endorsed values, our decisions to act or not to act, and our considered judgments. Indeed, since the first two are really a manifestation of the latter, it turns out that only one thing is truly up to us and to no one else: the exercise of our faculty of reason, what Epictetus called prohairesis, and what Marcus Aurelius refers to as “the ruling faculty.”

In my experience, most people don’t deny that we control our conscious thoughts (the unconscious is a whole different matter), but are puzzled by the claim that we don’t control externals, and particularly the first entry in Epictetus’ list: body.

What do you mean I don’t control my body? Of course I do. I can decide to eat healthy, go to the gym, and see my doctor regularly, in order to practice preventive medicine. How is that not controlling my body?

Well, first off, the list of body-related things I just gave you is actually a list of judgments and decisions to act or not to act. It is my considered judgment that I ought to eat healthy, go to the gym, and see a doctor on a regular basis. And the decision to act on such judgments is, again, mine.

Want a good real life example of why such decisions and judgments still do not amount to having control over your body? I’m glad you asked. For many years — guided by my prohairesis — I have taken exactly the steps outlined above in order to maintain my…

Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at