Epictetus part 22: Prepare to be ridiculed

This article is part of the weekly Epictetus series. New articles will be published every Monday.

Epictetus warned us that the pursuit of philosophy as a way to get happy and flourish is not easy. On the contrary, we must give up some things, and postpone others. Moreover, we should learn to ignore the things we can’t control. This includes the view that others have of us: status and social standing are outside our control and should therefore not be of our concern. Continue reading

Epictetus part 21: Negative visualization

This article is part of the weekly Epictetus series. New articles will be published every Monday.

In the twenty-first paragraph of the Enchiridion, Epictetus teaches us a valuable technique to improve our happiness and moral character:

Hold death and exile and all that seems dreadful before your eyes every day, but most of all death: and you will never think of anything bad or desire anything too much.

Continue reading

Epictetus part 20: Responding to insults

This article is part of the weekly Epictetus series. New articles will be published every Monday.

In part 5 of the Enchiridion, we learnt that even death is nothing terrible, but we only make it so by believing it is terrible. The same is true for insults: we can only be insulted if we allow ourselves to be insulted. Whether we feel bad about somebody’s taunts is up to us. Continue reading

Epictetus part 19: Status is unimportant

This article is part of the weekly Epictetus series. New articles will be published every Monday.

In paragraph 19 of the Enchiridion, Epictetus talks about men of great status. In our modern time, these can be presidents, kings, senators, athletes, business leaders or anyone else that people look up to. We often believe these people are happy because they are in a unique position of wealth, strenght or power. However, Epictetus reminds us, these things do not make us happy. What makes us happy is a free and independent mind, capable of reason. Our happiness is not controlled by fame or fortune, but by ourselves.

You can be invincible if you enter in no contest in which you don’t control whether you win. Beware that you don’t suppose that someone is happy when you see that he is honoured, or has great strenght or is otherwise highly esteemed, for you are carried away by the appearance. Because if what is good is in our power, then neither envy nor jealousy has a place. You will not want to be a leader, senator or president yourself, but a free man. And the only way for this is to despise what is not in our power.

Because we control our own happiness, and fame and fortune do not necessarily determine it, there is never a reason to be jealous or envious. If someone is doing well, be happy for them. For his happiness does not diminish yours. The only person responsible for your own happiness and flourishing is you.

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Epictetus part 18: Bad omens

This article is part of the weekly Epictetus series. New articles will be published every Monday.

We know by now that our worry is only in our mind. Moreover, we are not disturbed by external events, but only by our opinions about them. In line with these lessons, Epictetus takes a look at fortune-telling and good or bad omens. In ancient Greece, it was very common to consult an oracle or to observe the flight of birds in order to predict the future. Good and bad omens were taken very seriously. Even though most of us do no longer belief in prophecies, oracles and omens, we can still be disturbed by them. When was the last time you thought ‘this doesn’t predict much good’ after something happened? Without realizing it, good or bad omens still affect us. The advice of Epictetus: don’t worry about it, for it doesn’t concern you. If it is at all relevant, then it only concerns external circumstances like property or opinion.

When a raven croaks as a bad omen, don’t be carried away by the appearance. Instead, distinguish directly for yourself and say: ‘none of these things are marked for me, but either for my body, for my property, for my opinions, for my children or for my wife’. For me, everything is marked as a good omen, if only I want it. Because whatever of these things arises, it is up to me to benefit from it.

So, how should we deal with omens? First of all, realize that they can’t harm you if you don’t let them. You are in control of your happiness. Second, look favourably upon every event. Instead of thinking ‘this does not predict much good’, think ‘if anything, then this is natural and therefore good’.

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Epictetus part 17: You are an actor in a play

This article is part of the weekly Epictetus series. New articles will be published every Monday.

Let me start today with a comment you may be familiar with: Stoicism advocates living in accordance with Nature. Sounds familiar, right? The meaning of this phrase is very rich, and Epictetus highlights one aspect of it in paragraph 17 of the Enchiridion: we should play our part as it is given to us.

Remember that you are an actor in a play determined by the author: if short, then short; if long, then long. If he wants you to act as a beggar, then act even that with excellence, just as a cripple, a ruler or a citizen. Because that is your objective: to act the role that is given to you well. To select the role is up to someone else.

It is not up to us to determine the lenght of our life or the position we have in society. Health, lifespan, possession and status are not in our control. What is in our control is to act as well as we can in the situation we are in. If we happen to be a rich and wealthy CEO, then act as a CEO. If we happen to be a beggar, then make the best of it as well. Always make the best of what you have, and don’t beg for more. We are part of Nature and Nature determines our living conditions. And we? We make do with what we have.

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Epictetus part 16: Stoic consolation

This article is part of the weekly Epictetus series. New articles will be published every Monday.

What would a Stoic do if he saw someone crying? Does he think to himself ‘this is none of my business’ and move on? Does he try to reason with the person and explain that his sadness is created by his own opinions and not by what happened? These would be rather cold-hearted responses. Dogmatically, however, you might find that they are correct. As we have seen in part 5 of this series, “men are not disturbed by things, but by their opinions of things”.

Luckily (if I may say so), Stoicism is not particularly dogmatic in nature. Another belief that many Stoics share is that it is our duty to keep the global community of people healthy. And a bit of mental care and sympathy for a fellow-citizen in distress can go a long way. This is why Epictetus proposes the following reaction, as a combination of keeping ourselves in line with reason, while allowing consolation for others:

When you see someone crying in sadness because his child is away from home or because he has lost his possessions, take care that you are not carried away by the appearance, as if he is in distress because of external things, but immediately say: ‘he is not hurt by what happened (because someone else is not hurt), but he is hurt by his opinion about it’. Surely, as far as words go, don’t hesitate to sympathize with him, and if need be, even cry with him. But take care that you don’t cry internally as well.

So we may (or even must) console a person in need of consolation. We can listen to them, allow them to tell their story. We can even cry with them if the situation requires it. On the exterior, we can show all the sympathy and emotion that the other person needs. But on the inside, we must acknowledge the lessons that Stoicism taught us: nothing that happens can hurt us, if not for our opinion about it. Internally, don’t cry and be sad. Externally, do your best to help a person in need. After all, we Stoics are not the ice statues that some believe us to be. This paragraph of the Enchiridion proves just that.

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Epictetus part 15: A guest of the gods

This article is part of the weekly Epictetus series. New articles will be published every Monday.

Moderation is one of the core stoic virtues. In paragraph fifteen of the Enchiridion, Epictetus stresses its importance, by comparing our life with a dinner or banquet:

Remember that you have to behave as at a dinner. Does something happen to be passed around to you? Reach out your hand and take a moderate amount. Does it go by? Don’t grasp it. It has not come yet? Don’t cast your desire forward, but wait until it comes to you. It is the same with your child, the same with your wife, the same with your employment, the same with your wealth. And some day, you will be a dinner guest of the gods.

Don’t desire things that are not yours, and consider everything you get as a gift. If something befalls you, then be happy with it. But if it doesn’t, then don’t worry, don’t complain and be happy all the same. Do you get a nice child and a loving wife? Then be grateful for that. But if you don’t, then remember that these things are not yours to control. And your happiness does not depend on them. You can be perfectly happy on your own. The same goes for wealth, property and employment. Be moderate and grateful, and you will find a place at the best table of all: the table of the gods.

However, Epictetus shows us that there is a way of living that he thinks is even better than moderation: abstinence. If you can live poor and still be happy, you are the example of a god:

But if you do not take what is presented to you, and look away from it, then you will not only be a dinner guest of the gods, but you will rule together with them. Because by acting like that, Diogenes and Heraclitus and those like them became worthy to be divine and were called so.

Now, I am sure the Cynics would agree with this last part, but as a Stoic, it seems a bit extreme. Why would you forego everything if you can be just as happy with them? To me, abstinence is too extreme. Moderation is key. Being homeless and poor, like Diogenes may proof your integrity (as it sure did in his case), but is not essential for it. To find a place at the table of the gods and to be considered their equal, act with moderation. Be frugal. Know what is important and what is not. And be grateful for everything that is presented to you, without clinging to it.

 

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Epictetus part 14: Set yourself free

Note: this is the thirteenth 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).


Apatheia means being free from passions or emotions. It includes a lack of desire for things you should not desire: the things that are not in your control. In this sense, the stoic concept of freedom is much broader than generally acknowledged. We must not only seek to be free from others, but to be free from our own erroneous desires. To wish for eternal life, for instance, is foolish:

If you want your children and your wife and the people you love to live forever, you are stupid: because you want what is not in your control to be in your control, and what belongs to others to belong to you. Likewise, if you want your slave to make no mistakes, you are a fool: because you want what is bad not to be bad, but something else.

What we do control, is our mind. We can take away our desires from things that are not in our control and redirect them to what we should desire (which is virtue).

However, if you want to avoid misdirecting your desires, you can do that. So practise that, which you can do.

Desiring things that are not in our control is not only foolish, we also imprison ourselves by it. If you make yourself dependent on things that others control, you become a slave to them. Whether your master is your employer, your wife or Fortuna, you are not free. If you depend on the wheel of fate, you are its slave. Epictetus makes this magnificently clear in the following sentence:

A master over anyone is the person who has the power to grant or take away what the other person wants and doesn’t want. Anyone who wants to be free should not want anything, nor avoid anything which is controlled by others. Otherwise, he is bound to be a slave.

His advice: set yourself free. Do not desire what is not in your control, and do not averse what is not in your control. Only then, you can truly be free.

 

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Epictetus part 13: What’s important?

Note: this is the thirteenth 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).


The thirteenth paragraph starts with the exact same words as the twelfth: “If you want to make progress”. And again, Epictetus tells us that we should not worry about external things like wealth and fame, but about the most important internal thing: keeping your will in accordance with nature. In fact, he warns us that other people might ridicule us, but tells us we should simply withstand their mockery:

If you want to make progress, put up with being thought unknowing and stupid about external things, and don’t even wish to be considered knowing. And if you seem to be a person of importance to anyone, distrust yourself. Because you should know that it is not easy to keep your will in accordance with nature and keep external things. On the contrary: if you care for the one, you are bound to neglect the other.

External things don’t determine our happiness, but keeping our will in accordance with nature does. Since we can’t have both (as Epictetus explained in paragraph 1), we should focus on the latter. Indeed, if we seem to be important or have status, we should be wary, for it might be a sign that we are off-track. If we are considered to be persons of importance, we might be chasing fame instead of happiness. It is possible that fame and happiness coincide – stoics like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were surely famous –  but we should only strive for happiness, by keeping our will in accordance with nature. Fame and fortune may follow or may not follow. It doesn’t matter: we can be happy with or without them.

 

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