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.’

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.