Epictetus part 1: Are we in control?

Note: this is the first part of a weekly series, discussing the works of Epictetus. The first 53 parts are devoted to his Enchiridion (Handbook). A new post will be released every monday morning.

One of the most famous quotes of stoic philosophy is the opening of Epictetus’ Enchiridion (which translates to ‘Handbook’). This book consists of 53 paragraphs which capture many essentials of stoicism. The famous opening is as follows:

Of the things that exist, some are within our control, and others are not. Within our control are opinion, aspiration, desire, aversion, and, in short: whatever are our own actions. Not within our control are body, property, reputation, employment, and, in short: whatever are not our own actions.

In these words, Epictetus teaches us that there are two categories of things in existence: things that we control, and things that we don’t control. We only control our own actions, such as our opinions, desires and aversion. We don’t have control over all the other things, which are not our own actions. He continues stating that:

The things within our control are naturally free, unrestricted and unhindered. But the things not in our control are weak, subservient, restricted and belonging to others. Remember, then, if you hold for free what is naturally subservient, and for your own what belongs to others, you will be restricted, lamenting, troubled and you will blame both gods and men. However, if you hold for your own only what belongs to you, and for others what belongs to others (as it really is), no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you, you will blame or accuse nobody, you will do nothing against your will, no one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will surely not suffer any harm.

So, given the two categories of things, Epictetus tells us how to deal with them. We should only hold our own actions to be our own, and accept the fact that everything else belongs to others. If we accept this truth, then we will be free: free from restriction or coercion, free from making false accusations, and free from any harm. The only things we control, are our own actions. The rest happens to us and should be accepted as it is. If we are indifferent (apathès) towards them, we can be content (eudaimonas). However simple this sounds, Epictetus warns us that attaining eudaimonia is not easy and requires sacrifices:

Aiming at such great things, remember that you should take care not to be moved by mediocre things, that you should give up some things completely, and postpone others for the moment. For if you want these great things as well as power and wealth, then you may not gain the latter, because you strive for the former. Moreover, you will absolutely fail in those greater things through which alone freedom and contentment are reached.

I found this part to be more difficult to read and understand. What I think Epictetus means, is that you cannot strive for great things and mediocre things at the same time. That is, you cannot attempt to live the stoic way of life, while also desiring power and wealth. Because if you do attempt this, your stoic way of life might hinder your quest in power and wealth, while your quest for power and wealth will undoubtedly prevent you from reaching freedom and contentment (eudaimonia). Therefore, if you want to be free and content, you should completely focus on the stoic way of life and not additionally aim for power and wealth. Dramatically stated, you must choose between the mundane and the divine.

Conveniently assuming that we choose the stoic way of life, Epictetus helps us to make a distinction between what we ought to value and what not, based on the two categories of things we discussed earlier:

Practise, therefore, to say frankly to every harsh appearance: ‘you are just an appearance, and not at all what you appear to be’. Next, examine it and test it by the measures you have, first and chiefly whether it concerns the things that are within our control or the things that are not within our control. And if it concerns the things that are not within our control, be prepared to say: ‘it is nothing to me’.

This concludes the first paragraph of the Enchiridion. Epictetus teaches us to choose between the mundane and the divine. If we choose the divine (that is the stoic way of life), we should in all things distinguish between what is in our control and what is not. Subsequently, we should not concern ourselves with the things that are not in our control and only focus on the things that are within our control. By doing this, we make our first step on our Stoic Journey and get closer to the ultimate goal of freedom and contentment.

Note: true knowledge can only be acquired by testing your beliefs and assumptions. Therefore, I encourage you to discuss this post and share your views on the subject. I’ll be sure to read every comment you leave in the comment section below.

14 thoughts on “Epictetus part 1: Are we in control?

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