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.’

Control

‘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.