Epictetus: Ancient wisdom for the modern world

Epictetus was a former slave turned philosopher. From his students’ notes IMG_0307we have four discourses, a handbook, and a few fragments.

In the Enchiridion (or handbook) Epictetus wrote that external events are not up to us. And though we can exert varying degrees of influence, our desired outcome isn’t guaranteed. But our goals, values, and actions are up to us. It’s important to know the difference, and what to do about it.

If that sounds familiar it’s because someone cribbed it and called it the Serenity Prayer.

Epictetus’s discourses have a different flavor, though. The same themes are repeated. But Epictetus talks a lot about God in his discourses – to the point where it almost reads like a religious text.

Ancient Stoics (like almost everyone in the ancient world) believed in deities. Other Stoic philosophers, such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, were not atheists but didn’t place as much emphasis on God.

Stoicism today is neither explicitly theist nor atheist. Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion, and it can accommodate almost any personal faith or lack thereof.


Knowing what is and isn’t ours.


Epictetus advises us to turn unfortunate circumstances to our advantage. Lust is an opportunity to cultivate temperance. Pain can help us improve our endurance. And verbal abuse is a chance to develop a thick skin and learn patience.

The key, Epictetus says, is knowing what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. Things that don’t belong to us are other people, wealth, power, and even our reputations. The danger is that wanting what someone else has means letting that person control us.

But how we think about our impressions of the world and what we choose to do about it are ours.


What can really harm us.


Most of us expect harm or benefit from external things, but wise people expect harm or benefit from themselves. The Stoic virtues of being just, temperate, and self-controlled are central to human excellence.

When people criticize us it’s often because they think they have a moral responsibility to do so – but usually they’re just projecting an internal psychodrama. But don’t confront them. Instead, we should remind ourselves that their opinion has no value.

Progress means less blaming and praising of others, being less defensive, and not being so swayed by flattery.

On the other hand, anxiety is caused by wanting something that’s not within our control. Nothing lasts forever. If we lose something, we should willfully surrender it.

Epictetus adds that life is like a banquet. If something is offered, accept it – but don’t be greedy. And it’s okay to refuse what is offered. But if it doesn’t come our way, forget about it.


Reason is a skill. Cultivate it.


Tying all this together is the Stoic view that reason separates humans from lower animals. As such, Epictetus advises us to learn to desire what we have, not what we don’t have. Expect the unexpected, even if it’s undesirable, so we can be prepared. Focus on our sphere of control – our values, choices, and actions.

He says life are like dice, which indifferently fall where they will. But making skillful use of where they fall isn’t indifferent. We should train ourselves to avoid vice and endure the things that peeve us the most.

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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