Epictetus part 12: Only you control your peace of mind

Note: this is the twelfth 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).


In the Enchiridion, Epictetus makes a point of ensuring that you know one thing in particular: you are capable of creating your own peace of mind. You have all the means for this within you. Moreover, there is nobody else that can give you this: only you control your peace of mind. The way to achieve this, however, is not easy. You must learn to value reason and the power of choice, and accept that you don’t control things like material possessions and reputation. As I mentioned on this blog earlier, your worry is only in your mind. Because of this, Epictetus advises us to discard your worry over things that you don’t control:

If you want to make progress, discard considerations like these: ‘if I neglect my affairs, I will not have means for living’ or ‘if I don’t discipline my slave, he will be worthless’. For it is better to die from hunger while being free from pain and fear than to live wealthy while being troubled. It is better that your slave is bad than you bad-tempered.

The amount of money you have does not determine your happiness. The value of your slave does not determine your happiness. Yet worrying about them creates unhappiness and disturbs your peace of mind. Therefore, refrain from worrying about it. And this is how:

So start with the little things. Is some oil spilled or some wine stolen? Say ‘this is the price for equanimity and tranquility’. Nothing is free. And when you call your slave, consider the possibility that he doesn’t obey, and if he obeys, that he doesn’t do what you want. But his status is not so noble, that it should be up to him whether you are troubled or not.

I especially like the idea of a ‘price for equanimity and tranquility’. Everything you do has positive and negative effects: nothing is free. If you look after your affairs, you may gain more income. But at the same time, you lose calmness and create worry. Our priorities should be at our happiness, our eudaimonia, and not at our possessions or reputation. Because if you value external events too much, you will be disturbed. If you connnect your happiness to money, then money controls you like a master controls a slave. If you connect it to the value of a slave, than the slave controls you instead of the other way around.

An interesting thing that I found during translation is that Epictetus uses two words in combination to describe a desirable position: apatheia (equanimity) and ataraxia (tranquility). Apatheia is a central concept to stoicism and basically means that you do not let the passions control you. Ataraxia, however, is considered to be an epicurean (or skeptic) concept based on the absence of disturbances. In many ways, the stoics and the epicureans were opposing schools. But here, the famous stoic Epictetus uses a concept that is closely linked to epicureanism. I believe that the difference between the two is as follows: apatheia concerns the acceptance of external disturbances to deal with them, while the ideal of ataraxia is about the complete absence of those disturbances. This explains why the stoic school was located in the center of Athens, while the epicurean school was in a quiet garden where nothing could disturb the followers of Epicurus. Why does Epictetus use both concepts in the Enchiridion? I honestly don’t know (and gratefully listen to suggestions for this in the comments). The two are not completely different and might often go hand in hand, but the way to reach them is different according to stoics than according to epicureans (again: acceptance versus absence of external disturbances). I do think that this paragraph of the Enchiridion proves that stoicism and epicureanism have common ground, though. That’s definitely something to think about.

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