Epictetus part 10: Responding to hardship

Note: this is the tenth part of a weekly series, in which I translate and discuss the Enchiridion (Handbook) of Epictetus. New posts will be released every monday morning (GMT).

It’s one thing to know that we don’t control everything, that the only things that can disturb us, are our opinions, and that we have the ability to choose what we accept. It’s something else to deal with daily events and circumstances. How should we respond to temptation or insults? How can we bear hard labour? What capacities do we need to deal with such situations? Epictetus answers as follows:

With regard to everything that happens to you, remember to focus attention on yourself and seek what capacity you have to deal with it. If you see a handsome man or woman, you will find the capacity of self-control in response to it. If you are brought to hard work, you will find endurance. In case of scolding, you will find forbearance. In this way, if you accustom yourself to it, the appearances will not lead you astray.

For every hardship or temptation, find the right capacity to respond with. If you are faced with a challenge, examine it and seek the appropriate response. Generally, the right thing to do is the thing that ensures your tranquility.

There is a nuance in this that I think is easily overlooked. You might say: if I see a handsome man or woman, I should not approach him or her. I don’t believe that this is the advice that Epictetus gives, for it would mean that we can never meet a partner. Instead, I believe he argues that we should not rush towards the person in blind temptation. We should think first, and act later. If you have balanced your state of mind, then you might or might not approach the person. Don’t act from temptation or hardship, but act from a rational judgement. And in this action, use the capacity that suits it.

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