Undertaking a new task, a new challenge, is always difficult. The goals which reap the most are almost always the ones which will require the most effort and the most pain. Yes, it will hurt, for now, and perhaps for a while, but the outcome of that pain will have made it worth it. Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and teacher of Emperor Nero, recognised that life is at times, if not always, painful. The endurance of pain itself is testing and undesirable, but the ability to look back, Seneca says, and remember how we endured such pain, is worth much. Not only does it give us the ability to see how far we have come, but also to understand that we are capable of endurance if only we pursued it and willed it strongly enough. The usefulness of pain is an almost eternal concept, an idea which has been supported for thousands of years, and it is certainly true that without sacrifice, nothing can be achieved.
Anxiety is rampant today, and about 40 million people have some kind of anxiety, be it generalised anxiety, social anxiety or another form of which there are many. Anxiety can, of course, be brought on and triggered by many different things, such as an overuse of drugs, addiction, highly embarrassing or stressful situations, or traumatic life events. Given that it is such a great problem today, it is necessary to address it and attempt to offer some solutions to this great problem.
A common technique of battling anxiety is the use of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), a technique invented by Albert Ellis, and in fact Ellis used the ideas of Stoicism to form his main ideas about CBT, particularly the thought of Epictetus, and so it is he which we will focus on here.
Anxiety, Epictetus argues, is something that arises when we desire what is beyond our control. He uses the example of a lyre player-he is only anxious about performing in front of a crowd because he wants to win the approval of the audience, something which is beyond his control. Again, we are anxious because of our great concern for the external, rather than the internal. We wish to control what is beyond our choice and power, and our reliance on the external, especially the opinions of others, is what causes us to be anxious. How do we deal with this then? Epictetus says that like a doctor diagnosing a problem with someone’s liver, one should say that a person has a problem with his desire and aversion, and that it is this which is causing anxiety. Anxiety, it seems, arises from trying to control things we cannot.
Some might say that anxiety is innate, and runs through the core of our being. We are human, and so we just are anxious. It’s a part of our nature. To a certain extent this may be true, yet there is certainly an unhealthy amount of anxiety among many people, and it is this which causes problems. We must first confront anxiety and understand whence it comes-the desire to control things we cannot. After this understanding, we must practice and train ourselves to be less anxious by actually putting ourselves in potentially anxiety inducing situations and trying to deal with them more effectively each and every time.
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.
The Stoics are notorious for their ideas about perspective of mind, as well as their emphasis on the internal and external. According to Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, we do not indeed need much to be ‘happy’. Particularly in today’s society where more is seen as necessary and having very much is seen as equal to happiness-more stuff equals more happiness. The Stoics would resent this deeply. Rather than more, it is in fact less which leads to greater serenity and peace of mind. Seneca wrote about being satisfied with little, as did the poet Tibullus, and it is a Stoic idea to place little value on the external while placing great value on the internal since, according to the Stoics, it is the internal, and only the internal, which can make us happy. The Stoics encourage us to ask ourselves: why do you spend so much time looking for peace of mind outside, in possessions, status, and wealth, when the very thing you are looking out for is in fact inside your own mind?
I will be developing on Stoic ideas in the next post which will discuss further the ideas 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.’
‘Some things are within your control. And some things are not.’ Too often we may find ourselves trying to control things that we cannot ultimately control, and an intense frustration may ensue from this. Epictetus, the author of this quote, said that this realisation of control is a principle which must be understood if one wants to be happy and free. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of amor fati (love of fate), an idea that we should not become frustrated with the way things are, but rather that it is fate and so we should, perhaps, maintain a certain distance from the events around us, particularly the ones we dislike. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden says: ‘Stop trying to control everything and let go!’ It may be the case that at times we must prevent ourselves from trying to impose our power over everything, and instead just accept how things are.
This is not to say that there is nothing we can control. There are some things which we can influence. Yet there are many more things which we cannot. Acceptance of the uncontrollable is another step, and it may be the first, to freedom.