The Discourses of Epictetus

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The ancient philosophy of Stoicism was practiced by people at the very top of society in the Roman empire, from powerful advisors to the very wealthy and even the emperor himself. However, one of the most important Stoics came from the opposite end of the spectrum. Born into slavery, Epictetus was later granted his freedom. He then devoted his life to philosophy, lecturing in Rome before setting up his own school in Greece. His teachings were written down by one of his pupils and much of that work survives to this day, known as the Discourses of Epictetus.

Epictetus begins by clarifying what is and isn’t in our power. This concept is important as anything we are invested in that is outside of our control can lead to disappointment and unhappiness.

Gary Vaynerchuk has a particularly stoic outlook when it comes to happiness, as like Epictetus he believes it is a choice:

“To me, life is pretty simple. There’s things you can control and others you can’t. Everything boils down to your actions and your mindset but there’s just far too many of you continuously caught up that just don’t see it that way.”

We have absolute power over our decisions, our opinions, our likes and dislikes and our actions. We do not have complete control over our physical body, our property, what other people think of us, illness, poverty and death.

Imagine if a work colleague brings in lots of cakes for everyone in the office to enjoy. Many people may have a desire to eat the tasty treats, many others may have an aversion to the food as it is unhealthy or because they are on a diet. Epictetus says that over time, you can control and change your desires to make good use of them by practicing and training your mind.

Focusing on what you can control is used by elites in sporting fields. Here’s what Michael Phelps has to say on mindset:

“I think that everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it and you put the work and time into it. I think your mind really controls everything.”

Many of the things that we don’t have absolute power over, we do still possess on them a degree of control. For example, we can reduce the chance of getting ill by taking certain precautions, but we cannot guarantee we won’t ever suffer from illness or disease.

Epictetus explains that only those things that are within our own power to control are considered good or bad. Everything else external to our power of control should be considered indifferent. There is no point complaining or worrying about the weather for example, as there is nothing you can do about it.

Some people also identify themselves with external things such as their possessions. If a person compliments you on your clothes, it does not make you a good or bad person. They are talking about your clothes, not about you. As the author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk wrote:

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.”

I must die. But must I die bawling? I must be put in chains — but moaning and groaning too?

- Epictetus, The Discourses — Book I, Section I

Epictetus uses an extreme example of a man who has been condemned to death. Even in this situation, the man still is aware of what he can and can’t do. The fact he must die is an external matter that he has no control over, but he can decide whether to die crying or with a smile on his face. Even if your body is shackled, your can have an unconquerable will.

Physical hardships are not intolerable by nature. The Spartans, for instance, gladly submit to being whipped because they are taught that it is done for good reason.

- Epictetus, The Discourses — Book I, Section II

As part of their development to become warriors, Spartan boys underwent regular whipping to desensitise them to pain and make them tougher. In the modern world, many of us hate our jobs. Whether it’s down to abusive customers or an aggressive boss, we put up with being metaphorically whipped day-in, day-out. Why are these hardships tolerated? Epictetus believed it was because we are rational beings. The Spartans knew they were being whipped for good reason, to become stronger and eventually protect their homeland. We work jobs we don’t like because of the rational financial reward that we desire. However, different people have different standards and what one person may find reasonable may be unreasonable for someone else. What we cannot tolerate is something that seems irrational.

That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

- Friedrich Nietzsche

Epictetus believed that anybody who read and learnt about stoic philosophy but did not want to put any of it into practice, may as well have not bothered. He encourages us to not be upset by annoyances or challenges, but instead get excited about them. They provide an opportunity for us to see how well we have learnt what we’ve been taught and allow us to perform at our best.

He poses the question, what would have become of the mighty Hercules if there weren’t any of the many challenges he had to face in his life? If there were no lions or sea monsters to slay and no boar or bulls to capture, what would he have done? The answer in Epictetus’ eyes is nothing. Hercules would have simply rolled over and gone back to sleep. He may have been in comfort, but by snoring through his life, he would never have developed into the mighty Hercules. He may still have had the strength, but what use would it have been? It was the many adventures and challenges that made him great.

You should appreciate the resources you have and take on whatever difficulties are thrown your way, as these obstacles are the route to your own greatness.

One day a man asked for Epictetus’ advice on how to stop his brother from being angry with him. Epictetus replied, “Philosophy does not claim to secure for us anything outside our control”.

The man then asked how can he stay true to nature even if his brother won’t reconcile with him? Epictetus responded,

“Nothing important comes into being overnight; even grapes or figs need time to ripen”

Patience is required in order to achieve great things as they take time and grow slowly. If you want a fig, time is required to let the tree blossom, then let it bear fruit, then let the fruit ripen. Only then can you have the fig. Epictetus is telling the man that his brother’s mind won’t change overnight, it will take time for his anger to decrease. In the same way, your goals are going to need time to be achieved and your potential will take a while to be realised.

Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.

- Epictetus, The Enchiridion

The Greek philosopher Socrates was put on trial accused of corrupting the youth of Athens. After being found guilty of this charge, he was sentenced to death. As he is being held in prison, his old friend Crito comes to see him and provides Socrates with an opportunity to escape. Socrates refuses to escape and accepts his impending death, using his mind to make a choice in keeping with his values and character.

Circumstances that affect us but are out of our control cannot be measured as good or evil. However, the choices we make, how we behave, our judgements and other things that are in our control can be seen as good or bad. Epictetus uses the example of Socrates’ death to show that despite suffering being inflicted on his body, his mind was unhurt. Crucially, this was because he chose whether or not he was going to be hurt and how it would affect his mind.
Epictetus himself had a damaged leg and was crippled. Coupled with his status as a slave it seemed he would live his whole life in poverty. However, he understood that whilst he did not have much in the way of possessions, he did own his opinions, dislikes and desires.

There are many elements of our own lives that are beyond our control. We get easily frustrated by trivial “First World problems” such as being left on hold when calling a company or stuck in a traffic jam. These minor inconveniences can provoke anything from annoyance to outrage. Instead, take a stoic approach and focus on the parts of life you can do something about. It isn’t the hold music or the traffic that is annoying us, we have chosen to let these external events affect our internal state of mind through an emotional response. The ability to be happy is within your power no matter what circumstance you’re in.

Epictetus tells us the story of a thief who steals his lamp while he is asleep. As we have learnt, losing the lamp to somebody is an external circumstance and therefore he is indifferent to it. The person who has stolen the lamp however, has in the process of doing so, become a thief and therefore hurt themselves. Their choice and action has meant that if and when they are caught, they will have lost the ability to be trusted. Epictetus pities the thief rather than seeking revenge as the thief’s behaviour is down to ignorance. They haven’t understood the true nature of their reality.
When you find yourself in an unfortunate circumstance such as Epictetus did when he woke up to find he’d lost something, or you’re in a situation that isn’t going the way you want, such as having to work late and missing out on meeting your friends, take a moment to evaluate the situation you find yourself in.

Is it your mind that is making the situation go poorly and would changing your perspective or outlook improve the way you feel?

Some people would adopt a victim mentality to the circumstance of having to work late and believe in a narrative that their life is terrible and the world is not fair. They suffer because they think they can control things outside of their control. Instead, you could accept the world for what it is and look at your position in a different way. Don’t ignore the choice you can make in responding to what’s happening around you. This is entirely in your control. When you do eventually meet your friends consider you’ll enjoy it all the more as you haven’t seen them in a long time and remind yourself that completing the work this evening means that maybe you’ll have a less busy day tomorrow.

To get good at reacting in the most noble way possible and not get carried away by your impulses and thoughts, you should exercise this attitude on minor things at first such as small tasks around the house. Practice adopting this mindset often, that way when you later need to deal with the big things in life, you will have already done the hard work. Like a gladiator entering the arena, an Olympian heading out to compete or even the mighty Hercules himself, you will have trained and are prepared to master whatever life throws at you.

The Weaver does not make the wool, he makes the best use of whatever wool he’s given… Work with the material you are given.

- Epictetus, The Discourses — Book II, Section V

In order to strike a balance between being cool, calm and collected in the face of adversity yet still being conscientious and not careless in our attitude, Epictetus advises that we should model ourselves on card players. The chips and cards that are dealt do not matter. We should be indifferent to them because we can’t do anything about them. What we are responsible for is how we make use of the cards that we are dealt. The choices you make with them may be good or bad and the decisions are entirely in your control. Be careful using your cards whatever they are, for it is how we use them that is important.

If you decide to go on a road trip, you could hire the most reliable car, choose the quietest time to go and drive as carefully as possible but you could still get stuck and not get to your destination if an accident occurs on the road ahead of you. If you are stuck, there is no point ranting and raving it will not make you go any faster. You will have to wait for the traffic to clear regardless.

Despite all your best efforts in life, you will still hit problems on occasion. Understand that you are human and it is in our nature to meet such circumstances. Epictetus explains that we can choose how to react to them, which may mean they go more smoothly for you.

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

- Jim Rohn

Epictetus said we should take great care when deciding who we spend time with. One of two outcomes are inevitable, either you grow to be like them, or they will emulate you. He illustrates this point with two pieces of coal, one extinguished and the other still burning. Eventually those coals will affect each other. Either the extinguished one will cause the other to burn out or the burning coal will ignite the other one.

Spending time with people who are metaphorically “dirty” will lead to some of that dirt rubbing off on yourself. Human nature shows that it is easy to be influenced. You need to be aware of this so you can do what you can to inspire them instead. “Clean them up” to elevate them to your level. If you can’t, perhaps it’s time to leave that crowd.

A boxer derives the greatest advantage from his sparring partner.

- Epictetus, The Discourses — Book III, Section XX

A skilled swordsman does not value the sword itself but rather how well they use it. The skill lies in the swordsmanship. You could have the sharpest weapon around but if you are too scared to use it then the thrill is lost. The sword is a metaphor for your life, use it and in doing so you will develop and improve. Do not be afraid to use it even against better opponents, do not fear the potential circumstances, for as long as you use the sword, you can learn and advance your abilities.

Even when facing a more experienced and stronger opponent, that position represents an opportunity. We may end up injured but as a result we’ve also learnt and developed. In that respect, even injury can benefit us. Take chances and risk losing to grow and prosper as that is the nature of existence. By not taking part, can you say you have really lived?


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