Thoughts of Epictetus: How to cope with anything

Why do we become angry? Epictetus says. Because we attach value to external things not in our power. To refrain from anger, we must give things up, such as attachment to our clothes, so that we count them as nothing, and then if they are stolen, say, then we will no longer be angry. Moreover, Epictetus says, as long as we attach value to these things which are not in our control, we should be angry with ourselves, rather than the thief who takes our clothes. This idea of attachment is key to Epictetus, and he says that ‘one can only lose what one has…our losses and our pains only affect things that are in our possession.’ What does he advise to cope with the difficulties of life? He uses the Socratic idea-know yourself.

He goes on to say that we should not give expression to grief (an idea which seemed to influence Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote about suffering in silence), and that the invincible human being is ‘one who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice.’ This relates back to Epictetus’ key idea that we must know that some things are in our control, while others are not. We must remember that ‘it is our own judgements that disturb us’. He uses this example to illustrate his point:

For when the tyrant says to someone “I’ll have your leg shackled,” one who attaches value to his leg will reply, “No have pity on me,” while one who attaches value, by contrast, to his choice will say, “If you think that will do you any good, chain it up.”-“You don’t care?”-Not in the least.-“I’ll show you that I’m master.”

We must, therefore, detach ourselves from what is not in our power or control, while, perhaps, simultaneously expecting rather poor outcomes to circumstances. We must not outwards for coping mechanisms-the only mechanism that guarantees success is the one inside us-our mind.

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