Epictetus – PhilFri #8

“Some things are in our control and others not,” begins the text I’ve used for years to understand a philosophy that has guided me through peaks and valleys. In the first installment of my Philosophy Friday series, I wrote about this.

The only philosophers I truly have taken to heart and applied have been Epictetus, Plato, and Aristotle. They made me think about my habits, think about my health, and think about my emotions. These are all things I have needed to concern myself with through the years.

Philosophy Friday #1

Note who I listed first.

When I wrote about Aristotle, I discussed how “I remember him most as an ethicist who helped me realize, along with both Plato and Epictetus, that my drinking was wrong.” Shortly after I stopped drinking, the world seemed way too harsh. I had been using alcohol and nicotine to cope with my problems for so many years that raw, unaltered reality was stupidly difficult to bear. I had always worn my feelings on my sleeves and by realizing how much I couldn’t control, I was able to somehow confront my shirt and dust my shoulders off. Epictetus, although sometimes very demanding, does give some practical guidelines for reaching what Epicurus called ataraxia. The secret for Epictetus and other Stoics was simple: it starts with you.

Leaving on a jet plane in 2003, with no clue what we’d face, but it was my role

In The Enchiridion, he looks at the things we worry about that we can’t control and what it does to us, then instructs us:

But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you [will] not be harmed.

The Enchiridion (trans. Elizabeth Carter)

That’s a prescription I wouldn’t pass up. You’re telling me I can basically prevent anyone from hurting me? I can have nothing but friends? This sounds too good to be true. Perhaps it is, but you’re the one who decides.

Things in your control, after all, are how you react to things that happen to you. If someone calls you the biggest bitch to have ever lived, you can snap back, throw a few elbows, and perhaps that’ll make you feel good, but he’d argue you’re a slave to your passions and you’ve allowed someone else to dictate your actions. Aren’t you in control of them? If you’re not now, will you ever be? Remember what Aristotle and Dumbledore both have said about this?

Who do you think will live the better life in the end? Will it be the person who constantly reacts to the whims and wishes of others or the person who attempts to live in accordance with nature and within the bounds of their own capabilities? If I follow Epictetus, I’d rather be the oar than the raft, if that makes any sense (I’ll have to think about it).

Under Your ControlNot Under Your Control
your opinions
your pursuits
your desires
your aversions
your body
your property
your reputation
your command

Epictetus is an accessible philosopher. You don’t need a degree to understand what he’s getting at. He relates to you even though he lived 2,000 years ago. He discussed going to the bath (think about a swimming pool) and how foolish it would be for you to get angry about being splashed. Yeah, idiot, people splash in swimming pools. Same with traffic. Were you really expecting smooth sailing? You shouldn’t have. He even accounted for those things you can’t expect by offering a practical guide to comprehending what’s happening, an approach used in therapy now: ask yourself, “What is the nature of this thing happening to me right now?” See what answers come to you. If it’s in the right column, perhaps you shouldn’t fret about it. If it’s in the left column, figure out how to control it to your benefit. If you fail, that’s okay. Failure’s part of life.

8. Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.”

In fact, Epictetus argues, your life isn’t really yours. You’re here temporarily and you must play a role and you should play that role as well as you can. There is a dark side to Epictetus. His radical acceptance of some things seems particularly dangerous to modern humans. It does me no good to discuss those things here, but of the texts I have my students read in full, The Enchiridion is the one they most respond to. I highly recommend you read it.

In the meantime, I’m going to log off and not worry about the stuff on the right for a few minutes.

I am aware that I haven’t done justice to Epictetus or Stoicism, so here are some resources if you’d like to learn more:


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