The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus (50-135 AD), one of the most important Stoic philosophers in history, recommends seeing obstacles in our lives as opportunities to improve.
The interest in stoic books and life advice has been consistently growing over the past few years. Google Trends shows four times more searches for “stoic” now than in 2009. Unfortunately, much of that public interest in Stoicism is, like everything else in our societies, exploited commercially to sell more books and Stoic lifestyle courses. (And yes, you can subscribe to my premium newsletter below).
But we want to do something different and a lot more interesting here. We’re going to read Epictetus himself, the ancient philosopher-slave. Surprisingly for a 2000-year-old text, the Handbook of Epictetus is really easy to read (in translation, at least), and, besides the wisdom and gravitas that one would expect, also contains some of the weirdest philosophical arguments ever made in the philosophy of happiness. Unlike many modern philosophers, especially since the advent of the weaponised political correctness movements, Epictetus has the courage to pursue his arguments to their very logical end and he doesn’t shy away from conclusions that to the unsuspecting reader must seem obviously wacky (but more on this in our next episode).
When you are going about any action, remind yourself what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.” And in the same manner with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.”
What he is saying here is that we need to acknowledge that every action is part of a context in which it takes place. Our brains are often focusing on only the action that we intend to perform, without realising that this action will be performed within its inescapable context; and we get angry and frustrated when that context forces consequences upon us that we did not want.
We need to acknowledge that every action is part of a context in which it takes place.
For Epictetus, this shortsighted attitude is the source of much unhappiness in our lives. When I imagine myself taking a bus, what I see is only me, the bus, and my desire to arrive at my destination. What I don’t see, but what equally is part of the reality of a bus ride is the long wait at the bus stop, perhaps in bad weather. It is the man in the seat next to me who refuses to wear his mask properly and who is coughing into my direction while talking loudly into his phone. It is the long, slow stop-and-go of morning rush-hour traffic. It is the baby screaming in the seat behind me.
If I go into the bus thinking only of myself, all these annoyances and distractions will make it impossible for me to be happy and at peace during the ride.
But now look how Epictetus reframes the situation: Instead, he says, I should go into that bus seeking to “keep my mind in a state that conforms to the nature of what I am doing.” Why should I do that? Well, because no one can escape “nature,” by which Epictetus means the reality in which we live, whether we like it or not. A wise person, he says, would realise that taking a bus involves all these annoyances. Only, if we enter the bus with a clear understanding of what we are buying into and with the firm intention of keeping our minds at peace, then all this context ceases to be annoying and instead becomes a kind of philosophical training-ground.
Nobody would see the equipment in a gym as “annoying” because it makes them walk or run on the spot, pointlessly lift weights, sweat and pant. Why not? Because when we go to the gym, we do it precisely because we want to exercise our bodies to be stronger and healthier. The training equipment is not “annoying” us but supporting us in our goal to become healthier human beings.
The obstacles and trials that accompany a bus ride are, for the Stoic person, the mental equivalent of gym equipment.
In the same way, the obstacles and trials that accompany a bus ride are, for the Stoic person, the mental equivalent of gym equipment. A bus ride is not only a way to get somewhere, but it is also always an opportunity to lift some mental weights, to run some patience marathons, to exercise and to strengthen our mental health. When we enter a bus like that, we might almost be a little disappointed if it arrives on time, if everybody in it is quiet and friendly, if we get off without an incident, quickly, efficiently and… without having had any opportunity to grow and develop our Stoic skills. It would be like a visit to the gym when all the equipment is configured to be too easy for us: a waste of time.
For the Stoics, everything that happens to us seems to have a special significance that the same event wouldn’t have if it happened to someone else.
Everything else, especially our usual attitude of being annoyed by everything unexpected, is stupid, Epictetus would think: a sign that we are living in an unreal dream-world where the only certainty waiting for us is a harsh awakening to reality:
“But,” you say, “I would have everything result just as I like, and in whatever way I like.” You are mad, you are beside yourself. Do you not know that freedom is a noble and valuable thing? But for me inconsiderately to wish for things to happen as I inconsiderately like, this appears to be not only not noble, but even most base. For how do we proceed in the matter of writing? Do I wish to write the name of Dion as I choose? No, but I am taught to choose to write it as it ought to be written. (Epictetus, Discourses, Ch. 12)
Learning to live, for Epictetus, is just like learning to write. One does not write a word as one likes. Wun cood, off coarse, doo theat, but it wouldn’t be much use and make life harder, both for oneself and for everyone else. Learning to write involves, crucially, adhering to the rules of writing and spelling words as they ought to be spelled. After all, communication is the whole point of writing, not the expression of one’s own orthographical whims.
Learning to live, for Epictetus, is just like learning to write. One does not write a word as one likes.
In the same way, our life is inextricably entangled with the universe around us: with people and things, with places, institutions, events, accidents, feelings. It is folly to believe that we can live it the way we imagine without taking all that world that surrounds us into account. Just like orthography is the basis for happy and effective writing, the Stoic acceptance of the nature of things is the basis for a happy and effective life.
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Thank you for reading! Check out the premium post of the week on the Daily Philosophy Substack! – Andy