Thoughts of Epictetus

Epictetus was a Greek philosopher of Stoicism who lived from 50-135AD. Born a slave, Epictetus was taught by Musonius Rufus, another Stoic philosopher. He was set free at some point in his life and from there became a teacher of philosophy, first in Rome, then in Greece. Like Socrates, Epictetus wrote little, if anything, in his lifetime and so the majority of Epictetus’ teachings are from his pupil Arrian.

In the Discourses, Epictetus focuses on the things which are in our control and the things which are not. Distinguishing between these two is crucial, and it is this distinction which is the first step to serenity. Epictetus prioritises the mind over the body (‘why do you attach yourself to what is mortal?’), and inherits the Platonic idea that the body is a hindrance to the mind (‘these chains attached to us-the body and its possessions’). Furthermore, the influence of Aristotle can be seen when Epictetus writes of one’s ‘proper end’ and of acting according the human nature-Epictetus seems to use natural law as an argument for how to act (through reasoning-phronesis).

A key idea of Epictetus is of the external and the internal. Most fundamentally, it is our own internal judgement and opinion which causes our acts and our world view, rather than the circumstances around us-he believes we have control over how we view the world and life in general (a main Stoic idea). He says that tragedy is the portrayal,, in tragic verse, of men who have ‘attached high value to external things’. We must not attach ourselves too greatly to the external, but rather focus on what is inside us. Moreover, he emphasises that rather than discussing principles and discussing certain actions, we should act and put our principles into action, as well as aiming to solve problems rather than to complain about them. The human good, Epictetus says, ‘lies in a certain quality of choice.’

Risk yourself

Whenever you cannot be bothered or decide to say no to an opportunity out of fear or because you do not wish to put yourself at risk, remember that one day you won’t ever be able to even make such a decision, and that when that day comes, you will have wished that you took the risk. Take the risk, become closer to knowing what it means to be alive, and live on the edge, since a life of risk is the only life worth living.

Removing pain with the Buddha and Schopenhauer

To the Buddha, it was desire which causes suffering. Being alive, however, means to desire, and so he concluded that life is therefore suffering. Our brains have evolved to the extent that we are continuously desiring. Once a desire is fulfilled, another desire comes along, perhaps with an intermittent stage of boredom. Our brains evolved like this for survival. Maintaining a continuous flow of desire means maintaining existence which is, ultimately, the goal of the brain-to preserve the human species. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote extensively on the suffering of the world, and argued that life ‘swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.’ We may at times find ourselves either bored or dissatisfied with life, or both simultaneously. How, then, can we remove unnecessary or unwanted pain? First, we should remember that some pain is necessary and useful, but if pain is truly unwanted, and we believe that the pain will not benefit us in the future or aid us in achieving future goals, then there are few things which we can do:

Tyler Durden of Fight Club said that ‘it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.’ Even if we do not want to lose everything, we can still remove the things in our life which we do not want or enjoy or need. We should also recognise that the time that matters is here and now, and that although the future is important to some extent, it doesn’t even exist yet, and so we should, perhaps, focus on today, rather than worrying about tomorrow. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we must remind ourselves, when times seem bad, that it could be much, much worse. Yes, it could be better, but reminding ourselves that it could be worse may give us a slightly more objective viewpoint which may help put things in perspective. Another point is that, eventually, one day, you will be dead. None of this pain or boredom now will not matter to you. Nothing at all will matter to you when you’re dead, and on the spectrum of the universe, death is going to come pretty soon, so perhaps reminding ourselves of death’s nearing hand may, strangely, cheer us up since we know that petty complaining and suffering may seem to matter now, but once you’re on your death bed, will you regret allowing all that worry and pain and stress to get to you, rather than enjoying life while it allows you to?

Schopenhauer himself may have advised turning pain into knowledge, and using suffering as a tool for achievement. We may now, though, conclude that a great deal of our suffering, pain and boredom can be dealt with simply by altering our perspective and the way we see the world, existence, and ultimately, our own selves.

Maintaining motivation and willpower with Ovid

The future you is already someone else. Some other person has written a book, some other person can run a marathon, some other person has the job you want. The goals you have today have most likely already been achieved by other people. This fact can do two things:

I) it lets us know that what are aiming for is possible, and so we know that, if we try hard enough, we can attain it

II) it can be used as a target. Using Ovid’s quote about horses running fast when other horses are in front, we can use the fact that people are ahead of us as a booster and a motivational tool to work more intensely and passionately towards what we want to do.

Another quote of Ovid, the notorious Roman poet: ‘Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.’ This quote expresses the good of sacrifice and suffering. Not all suffering is good, but not all suffering is bad either. The pain you experience now is worth the gains you will experience later. It’s a simple fact. If we want to be good at something, we have to be willing to hurt for it, for our goal, for ourselves.

First, then, be willing. Be open to pain, and soon enough, if used in the right way, that pain will open the doors of satisfaction.

The comfort zone

We all have comfort zones, accustomed places and routines. It’s not surprising really, given that it’s in our nature to seek comfort. Comfort is what it is-comforting. Yet, should we always seek comfort so easily? One might say that comfort is both uninteresting and mediocre. Little worthwhile is gained from comfort. Alain de Botton said that people only start to become interesting ‘when they start to rattle the bars of their cages.’ Great things come from pain, sacrifice, discomfort. How can we evolve if all we spend our time doing is working for money and watching endless TV and endless social media feeds? A life of comfort is nothing to be ashamed of, yet is it something to be truly proud of? Comfort is good, I do not deny that, but is comfort always good? Perhaps, you might say, it is. But if you always lived in ‘comfort’, would you have created anything you thought was worth anything? The best of things are made from the worst of times.

If you want to come near to experiencing the feeling of being alive, first you must leave your comfort zone.

How to attain the life you want

All you need is a reason. Once you have a why, all you need is will. The simple truth is that if you truly and deeply will something, then you will, regardless of what challenges you, achieve it. It is a matter of desire. If you genuinely want something, there should be nothing denying you from reaching it. This is, I believe, because we act how we want to, always. We might say ‘I don’t want to do this’, but at a closer examination it is actually what we want. We say we don’t want to go to work or school, yet we know that we need to work for money or we need education for a degree and so in fact it is the case that it is what we want. Our actions reveal what we want, and we never act in contradiction to our wishes, even if we may think we are. So, the answer is, for whatever you want to achieve, that you must genuinely want and desire what you are chasing. Otherwise, all your efforts will, in the end, be futile.

Want it, then act, and if you really wanted it, what you wanted you will have gained.

That one question…

We always ask ourselves how we should live, how we should act and what we should do with our time. Rarely, if ever, do we find a right answer. It’s one of those questions which we can’t just look up online or find in a book. Yes, other people can tell us how to live, but that doesn’t mean that’s how we should live. Is there, then, any way of finding a right answer?

Many things can be used as examples which tell us how to live: advertising, the Bible, various philosophies of life. Yet are they correct? In some places we may find right answers, but not the right answer. The external may be able to help us recognise the truth about how to treat others and act in certain situations, but the fundamental thing is that each recognition comes from within you. It has to be you who accepts what you read or watch, and as soon as you do, it has become part of your way of life. It is part of your theory of ‘how to live’. As we constantly go through life from one second to the next, we are not only living but also simultaneously acting out how we believe we should live. The answers do not come from the external, they come from the internal, and from the reflection of our own life as we have lived it so far. Sartre is right in the sense that one cannot say to another ‘this is how to live’, yet I believe that how we should live has been figured out, by ourselves, for ourselves and for ourselves only. Only you yourself can truly figure out how you should live. Christopher Hitchens used the example of Socrates’ inner daemon– a guiding, internal voice. Perhaps the only way we can ever know we should live is to listen to this daemon, and to review how we act in certain situations. How we act in a certain situation reflects our thoughts on what we should have done in that certain situation. There are no variables here, and what we do is what we think we should do at that moment, even if in retrospect we realise we should have done something different. To figure out how to live, first, we must live. It is up to yourself, nobody else. There is no right answer, only right answers, and as long as we truly listen to ourselves, to our inner voice, we will know how to live.

Time

Time is constant,  or at least the human sense of time is. Time, for ourselves, is also limited. There is only so much designated time left for us before we die. There are X many minutes left before you no longer exist, Y many hours, and Z many days. However much is left, it is limited, and soon enough it will be gone and the sand in your timer of life will run out. In the perspective of the universe, the time we as individuals have is minute, just a blip of life in the great line of existence. For us, life can, at times, feel long and drawn out, while at others it can feel painfully short, and we are left wondering where the time went. Moreover, time won’t hang around for us. Rain or shine, time continues. Time is indifferent to our problems, just like the universe. Time inevitably causes change. In fact, one could perhaps define time as change. Nevertheless, change is unpreventable. What life boils down to, then, is how we use our time, and how we change. We can use the time well and change for the better, or we can use it badly and change for the worse.

Everything passes. Your life has come, and soon it will go. Reminding ourselves of the temporality of our situation can help us enormously, since we realize that if the times are good, we should savour them and experience them as best we can while they are still around. As for the bad, it will pass. Constantly reminding ourselves of the temporal nature of ourselves is key to influencing the change we want to see, be it in the world or in ourselves. Further, time tells us we are mortal, that we don’t have long before we can’t change anything simply because we won’t be anymore.

Life is about using your time as best you can. You must use the time left to create the change you want to see, but remember, time will never wait around for you. If you’re doing what you really want, why are you doing it? Or is it that you secretly want to ‘waste’ your time? If you want to write a book, you’ve got to start now. If you want to start a business, you’ve got to plan now. The simple reason is that the only time is the time of now. The present is the only thing that will help you change anything, so use it, while you still can.

What are you waiting for?

Eudaimonia: Aristotle and happiness

The Greek word eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) is usually translated as ‘flourishing’ or ‘welfare’. This was, to Aristotle, the highest good (summum bonum). But how, especially today, can we reach this highest good?

Aristotle linked eudaimonia with virtue (here meaning ‘excellence’) and reason. For him, eudaimonia entailed virtue and activity, particularly intellectually stimulating activity, since Aristotle believed that reason (logos) is unique to humankind. Of course, however, activity can be mental or physical, since there is practical reason as well as mental reason. Virtue is, for Aristotle, necessary to attain eudaimonia, yet is not enough, since activity of some kind must be involved which attains success by virtuous means. There are, however, other things that appear to be depended on if one desires to achieve eudaimonia. These are goods external to oneself, such as friendship and beauty, and Aristotle would doubt that eudaimonia could truly be achieved without these kinds of external goods, which means that attainment of ‘flourishing’ seems to involve, to some extent, an element of luck.

How can we apply this to our life today? C. D. Ryff defined eudaimonia with six parts:

  1. Self acceptance
  2. Personal growth
  3. Purpose in life
  4. Autonomy
  5. Environmental mastery
  6. Positive relations with others

Not only must be at one with ourselves, we must have good relationships with others. Of course, a definite purpose is necessary, otherwise we will find ourselves wandering around aimlessly as if in a dark room. It is no doubt the case that although we rely on personal circumstances, it is up to us to attain eudaimonia. If we want it, we must concentrate on what we must do to get it, and discover for ourselves what we must implement and what we must remove from our lives.

On anger

Anger is frustrating. At times we may find ourselves in a state of rage, perhaps unsure why we are in such a way, but definitely convinced that anger is the best response to our situation. There is, of course, just anger, as well as unjust anger. The case for unjust anger is a difficult one, and it is best diffused when we are given time and solitariness to reflect on why we are angry, hopefully coming to the conclusion that our anger is not fair or right. With justified anger, it is a different case, however. Justified anger can be worse, since it can build up over a period of time until we snap in a fit of sudden rage. I’m sure we’ve all been in both parts of anger, sometimes justified, sometimes not. Justified anger should be acted upon, yet rationally and calmly, whereas unjustified anger should not be acted upon at all, unless it is at a punch bag or some other cathartic device. Essentially, though, we must give our minds time and quiet to reflect and to allow our more rational side to once again lead our emotional part to a better state. Sleep, I think, is perhaps the best remedy for anger, and meditation also. Moreover, hitting something like a punch bag is good. What one must remember is that our anger should always be expressed, just in the right way. If not, we may find it coming back to us in a disastrous moment of fury.