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Stoicism: Essential Philosophy for a Neurotic Era
Book Review: Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1
History is fascinating.
I’m also untrusting of historians’ narratives, so a hobby of mine is reading original texts. I find it extra cool because you can connect directly with a mind from hundreds — or even thousands — of years ago.
Doing so gives one not just the birds-eye view that a historian might try to give, but actually a little direct window into a very different world, and a very different culture. It’s like traveling, but going back in time rather than to a different place in the present world.
That can give us important perspective to apply to today’s world.
Ancient stoic philosophers are underrated
I’ve taken philosophy classes, but they didn’t touch on stoicism.
Now I’m catching up. In the last half-year, I’ve read all of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and am now on Seneca.
Most striking: 90% of what’s in good modern popular self-improvement books was already said by the stoics 2,000 years ago.
The stoics’ approach seems particularly important for increasingly depressed and non-resilient modern people.
Here, I’ll convey some of Epictetus’s major insights. He and the other stoics certainly didn’t get everything right. He very much believed in Zeus, for example! I see this as fascinating, rather than something to poke fun at.
Epictetus actually didn’t write anything. Rather, he spoke endlessly to his students, and one student later published the notes he wrote down. The result is that the book has an extremely informal air — Epictetus, lecturing from a greek island, is more full of jokes, sarcasm, insults, and exhortations, than any other philosophical book I’ve read. Which makes it extra enjoyable.
Here are highlights:
I. Success generally requires helping others
Economist Adam Smith (1723 - 1790) has this famous quote:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
Meaning: People produce things for you not because they love you, because they benefit. This is a central insight into why capitalism works; people act selfishly, but end up creating goods and services for others in the process of making money.
Epictetus seems to have come up with the same principle, about 1700 years earlier — but he cited Zeus as his model of a producer, rather than a butcher or a baker:
It’s cool that he recognized so long ago that, to succeed, people generally have to contribute to others’ welfare.
In any society with some property rights, that is perhaps the most important realization to success — that you will succeed if you can provide something of value to others.
II. Don’t care about things beyond your control
By far the most central principle of the stoic philosophers is to not let oneself be fazed by things that are not within one’s control.
Epictetus gives the example of unfavorable winds:
If the weather prevents us from sailing, we sit there in a state of anxiety constantly peering around … When will the West Wind blow? … When it so chooses, my good friend, or rather, when Aeolus [the keeper of the winds] chooses; for God hasn’t appointed you to be controller of the winds, he has appointed Aeolus.
Wind direction is a particularly clear example of something that one cannot personally control. But the general lesson extends to illness, politics, war, others’ affections, prices, and really anything that is primarily beyond one’s control.
I have learned to see that whatever comes about is nothing to me if it lies beyond the sphere of choice.
What are we to do?… To make the best of what lies within our power.
What does lie in our power is our mindset, he points out:
III. Care exclusively about what you can control — your mindset
Epictetus gives numerous extreme examples of heroes of his who only care about their values and mindset — people who ignored death, torture, banishment, and more, but who still remain serene because they have complete control over their mind.
One example he gives is that of a Senator who was on trial.
[Someone told the Senator] ‘your case is being tried in the Senate’.
[The Senator replied] ‘May everything go well! But the fifth hour has arrived’ — this was the hour in which he was in the habit of taking his exercise and then having a cold bath — ‘so let’s go off and take some exercise.’
When he had completed his exercise, someone came and told him, ‘You’ve been convicted.”
‘To exile,’ he asked, ‘or to death?’
‘What about my property?’
‘It hasn’t been confiscated.’
‘Then let’s go away to Aricia [where he was banished] and eat our meal there.’
The point is that the trial verdict was beyond the Senator’s control, and because of that, he did not allow the outcome to impact his spirits in any way. He focused on what he could control: his reaction to the verdict, and the choices in front of him about eating and exercise.
Epictetus concludes the story:
This is what it means to train oneself … to have rendered one’s desires incapable of being frustrated.
In general, the stoics recommend a dismissal of all worldly things — the rationale is that doing so gives one total freedom, because only one who does not care for external things cannot be pressured. Epictetus says:
“whoever longs for things that are not within his power, or seeks to avoid them, cannot be trustworthy nor free, but … is inevitably placing himself under the domination of other people, namely those who can secure or prevent such things.”
To make it even clearer:
Here, Epictetus is saying a tyrant may control one’s body, but they can never control one’s mind. “Zeus has set me free” means that humans are gifted by nature with the ability to control their own mindset, as is made clear elsewhere in the book.
Epictetus’s points long preceded Viktor Frankel’s famous and excellent “Man’s Search for Meaning” in which the author, a psychologist and holocaust survivor, speaks of the same thing: that even when one loses freedom in every possible conventional sense, one can still retain freedom of one’s mind; that the freedom to perceive meaning in things as one sees fit can never be taken. Stoic themes resound in so many works over last two millennia.
Epictetus was never in a concentration camp, but his extreme focus on this kind of freedom is likely due to his early life as a slave, which created in him a desire to be free not merely from his former master, but from every external pressure. So repeatedly, he mocks those who value worldly things over their principles as “slaves” to their desires and fears.
The stoics, in their rejection of worldly things, have some overlap with Buddhists. But unlike Buddhists, the stoics don’t consider a transcendental ego-less state as the highest goal — instead, they see the highest state as acting honorably, which they define as acting in accordance with one’s values, with nature, and with reason, which they regard as humans’ truest nature.
In a second example of heroism, Epictetus recounts a conversation between an emperor and a senator:
When [Emperor] Vespasian sent word to [Senator Priscus] not to attend a meeting of the Senate, [the Senator] replied, ‘It lies in your power not to allow me to be a senator, but as long as I remain one, I must attend its meetings.”
Emperor: ‘Well, if you do attend, hold your tongue.”
Senator: ‘If you don’t ask for my opinion, I’ll hold my tongue.’
Emperor: ‘But I’m bound to ask you.’
Senator: ‘And I for my part must reply as I think fit.’
Emperor: ‘But if you do, I’ll have you executed.’
Senator: ‘…You fulfill your role, and I’ll fulfill mine. It is yours to have me killed, and mine to die without a tremor; it is yours to to send me into exile, and mine to depart without a qualm.’
The Senator was indeed eventually executed.
Epictetus sees the emperor’s actions as external things outside of the senator’s control — and therefore not worthy of any concern. Epictetus always takes his philosophy to its logical extreme.
One is likely to object: It IS in the senator’s control. He can avoid execution just by holding his tongue or skipping the Senate session.
But, he cannot do that while also remaining honorable, true to himself and his reason — which again is seen by the stoics as the highest good. That’s why Epictetus sees this as an inspirational, heroic story.
IV. Wonder at the universe; have gratitude; have self-respect
Epictetus considers gratitude important, and calls on people to remember that they have a spark of divinity and should treat themselves as such:
We can see in the later part of that passage the emphasis that the stoics placed on reason being the higher, more divine trait — the one that sets us apart from animals.
Below, Epictetus cites more wonders of the universe, even: “the mere fact that milk is produced from grass, and cheese from milk, and wool from an animal’s hide.”
V. Remember that everything is a choice; you have the power of exit
There, you can see some of his humorous tone, telling people to live up to the example of children and to “stop moaning.”
Arguably, Epictetus was the original Jordan Peterson.
VI. Practice habits
Like any good self-improvement author, Epictetus discusses habits — specifically highlighting what he sees as the bad habit of excessive whining about people dying:
Most modern people wouldn’t pick excessive concern for the slain as the main habit they are trying to break — but Epictetus sees it as useless sorrow over something outside of one’s control.
His broader point about breaking a bad habit by setting a contrary habit was no doubt groundbreaking for his time. Might as well read Epictetus rather than whatever “Habit” book is trending in the airport bookstore this decade.
VII. Natural is good
The stoics are very pro-nature, in the sense of assuming that what nature dictated is right.
For example, Epictetus weighed in on the modern trans pronoun controversy:
He was actually addressing, not pronouns, but rather the controversy of whether men should shave, a subject on which he feels strongly:
Epictetus was probably making a point about how even standing for the freedom of a trivial principle would warrant the loss of any external thing (even life.) How seriously he meant that is open for interpretation — certainly he was speaking on the fly, and one gets the sense that he liked to provoke his students by taking everything to its logical conclusion.
VIII. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger - building character
A bull doesn’t become a bull all at once, any more than a man acquires nobility of mind all at once; no, he must undergo hard winter training, and so make himself ready.
Epictetus is broad-minded in what he considers difficulties and challenges; below he discusses the difficulty of dealing with people who are wrong (which perhaps is even more relevant for us modern people, who get to deal with an infinite flow on insanity on social media!)
He also exhorts people to take up whatever challenges and difficulties life throws at them, rather than to complain that they wish they faced different ones:
IX. Patience, Investment, Action
Epictetus relays a story about how one cannot expect to win a person over in a short time — that patience is required:
Finally, he calls on his students to not just listen, but rather to implement stoic ideas, and act in the world:
I really enjoyed Epictetus.
His philosophy, rather than being seen as airtight, logical treatise on morality, should be taken as exhortations for living a better life more aligned with one’s truest self.
Today, so many of the best “self-improvement” books offer really the same advice that Epictetus gave nearly 2,000 years ago. But reading Epictetus additionally gives one a sense of the timelessness of such advice.
It’s also easy to forget that intellectuals in the enlightenment period read and wrote in Latin, using it as an intellectual common language before English became so dominant. As recently as 100 years ago, top universities all required proficiency in Latin as an entry requirement — ensuring that just about everyone in the most elite cohorts had a strong understanding of classical philosophers like Epictetus. Partly as a result, one can see classical stoic themes constantly resounding throughout the enlightenment and American history (from “give me liberty, or give me death” to American leaders choosing the name “Senate” for their legislative body.)
The fact that Epictetus said all the above nearly 2,000 years ago also gives the reader a direct connection with history, informing one about what life in the ancient world was like, and what their dilemmas and conflicts were about. Overall, they were surprisingly similar to ours today!
5/5 stars: https://www.amazon.com/Discourses-Fragments-Handbook-Oxford-Classics/dp/0199595186/
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