Epictetus: What Can We Control?

Epictetus (c. 55 – 135 CE) was born as a slave in the Roman Empire, but obtained his freedom as a teenager. He studied Stoic philosophy from an early age, eventually lecturing on Stoicism in Rome. He was forced to leave the city in 89 CE, after the Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Italy. He then established his own school at Nicopolis on the Adriatic coast in Greece, where he taught and lectured until he died around 135. Today he is regarded as one of the preeminent Stoic philosophers.

The major compilation of Epictetus’ teaching is the four-volume work usually called the Discourses. His other major work is the shorter Enchiridion (usually referred to as the Manual or Handbook). It is essentially an abridged edition of the Discourses. However, the Discourses provide a better guide to understanding the thought of Epictetus. I’ll use it as the basis for the following discussion.

Theory of Reality & Human Nature

Epictetus believed that humans were rational beings living in a rational universe.  He refers to the fundamental orderliness of all things, or the rational principle underlying the universe, as Zeus, God, or the gods. This rational principle pervades all reality, and as rational beings our minds are fragments of Zeus’ mind. While this may sound strange to our ears, a modern interpretation says that Epictetus held that nature is mathematical, logical, or fundamentally rational.

As for human beings, a capacity to choose is their fundamental characteristic—the essence of their nature. The principle of cause and effect does operate in nature, but our decisions are free of external compulsion. Thus Epictetus would today be called a compatibilist; he believes that freedom and determinism are compatible. Most importantly he believes that our convictions, attitudes, intentions and actions are truly ours in a way that nothing else is. No doubt these convictions derived largely from his experiences as a slave, where he was compelled to do many things but free to think for himself.

The Problem of Life & Its Solution

The basic problem in human life is that we suffer because we fail to distinguish between what is in our control and what is not. Things within our control include our judgments, intentions, desires, and aversions—an internal world of mind governed by our own volition. But everything else about us—our body, possessions, relationships, wealth, fame, reputation—depends on factors largely beyond our control. Cause and effect governs the external world. Confusing the internal world of our mind, over which we have control, with the external world, which we can only influence but not control, causes most suffering.

To make matters worse, we often assume that external objects and circumstances are the most valuable things in life. And we mistakenly believe that happiness is found outside of ourselves. Then, when the external world doesn’t meet our expectations, we experience grief, fear, envy, desire, and anxiety. But Epictetus rejects the view that our emotions are imposed on us. We are responsible for our emotions, feelings, thoughts and actions, and the circumstances of our lives are simply the arena in which we exercise our volition.

This basic idea of Epictetus, and Stoicism in general, is sometimes captured in the pithy phrase: “Happiness is not getting what we want, but wanting what we get.” Again, well-being doesn’t derive from the possession of external things, but from control of internal states of mind. To better understand this consider a simple example. If we are stuck in traffic, we can choose to fume and curse as our blood pressure rises, or we can be thankful for the chance to listen to our favorite music. We have no control over the traffic, but we do have control over how we respond to it.

For Epictetus the key to inner well-being is to align what life give us with what we want or, in his language, align our will with the will of the gods, fate, or what life gives us:

But I have never been hindered in my will, nor compelled when I did not will. And how is this possible? I have placed my movements toward action in obedience to God [fate]. Is it His will that I shall have fever? It is my will also. Is it His will that I should move toward anything? It is my will also. Is it His will that I should obtain anything? It is my wish also. Does He not will? I do not wish. Is it His will that I be put to the rack? It is my will then to die; it is my will then to be put to the rack. Who, then, is still able to hinder me contrary to my own judgement, or to compel me? No more than he can hinder or compel Zeus. (The Discourses, Book IV, Chapter 1)

These are strong claims indeed, but it seems that even under torture Epictetus was able to control his response by aligning his wants with his fate. In modern times, U.S. Navy airman James Stockdale credited the philosophy of Epictetus with helping him endure more than seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Thankfully most of us will never have to endure physical torture, but many of us are tormented by fear, anxiety and depression. Here again Epictetus has something to offer. The psychologist Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, a form of  today’s popular cognitive behavioral therapy, credited Epictetus with providing a foundation for his system of psychotherapy. So there is still much to learn today from this ancient philosophy.

Epictetus even extended this analysis to feelings of anger or betrayal toward others. What others do is external to us; we only have control over our response. What others do doesn’t hurt us—unless we let it. Suppose someone tells us we are worthless, incompetent, or unlovable. Does this hurt us? Not unless we let it. The words are just sounds in the world. Why should they hurt us? The wind and the ocean make sounds that don’t hurt us. We could let the sound of the wind hurt us. We could say “I’m no good because I’m in the wind’s way!” But the wind’s blowing doesn’t make you, in the way, anymore than someone telling you are stupid makes you stupid. These things only hurt you if you let them. This is what Epictetus taught, and it is one of the most valuable lessons in the history of thought.

Still, learning to control our minds takes effort and training. A teacher can help train our minds, but we can do it ourselves Epictetus says because we are rational. We can recognize the difference between our minds, over which we have control, and the external world over which we do not. With effort we can even learn to alter our emotional dispositions. Still, as Spinoza warned, “all noble things are as difficult as they are rare.” Thus becoming stoical is much more difficult than understanding sStoicism. The journey to enlightenment and inner peace is as difficult to follow as the razor’s edge. But Epictetus has given us the insights from which to begin our journey.

Concluding Remarks

There is more we could say about Epictetus and the other Stoics, and I encourage all to read them. But perhaps the essence of Stoicism was most succinctly captured by Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, in the third maxim by which he governed his life. In homage to Stoic philosophy, Descartes penned three of the longest and most profound sentences I’ve ever read.  And when Descartes refers to “such philosophers as in former times,” he refers, of course, to the Stoics.

My third maxim was to endeavor always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented; for since our will naturally seeks those objects alone which the understanding represents as in some way possible of attainment, it is plain, that if we consider all external goods as equally beyond our power, we shall no more regret the absence of such goods as seem due to our birth, when deprived of them without any fault of ours, than our not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico, and thus making, so to speak, a virtue of necessity, we shall no more desire health in disease, or freedom in imprisonment, than we now do bodies incorruptible as diamonds, or the wings of birds to fly with.

But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and, amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied.

For, occupied incessantly with the consideration of the limits prescribed to their power by nature, they became so entirely convinced that nothing was at their disposal except their own thoughts, that this conviction was of itself sufficient to prevent their entertaining any desire of other objects; and over their thoughts they acquired a sway so absolute, that they had some ground on this account for esteeming themselves more rich and more powerful, more free and more happy, than other men who, whatever be the favors heaped on them by nature and fortune, if destitute of this philosophy, can never command the realization of all their desires.

5 thoughts on “Epictetus: What Can We Control?

  1. Thank you for your great article !!!!!!!!!!!!! -I have been moved to read the Discourses.
    I am currently Reading Admiral Stockdale’s- Thoughts of a Philosophic Fighter Pilot.
    The Stoics have personally helped me through some dark days.
    “The mind of the wise man is like the Ultra-Lunar Firmament, it is pervaded with eternal calm ” Seneca Epistles
    It is truly amazing how blessed are the Teachings of the Ancients !

  2. Epictetus taught that philosophy is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. To Epictetus, all external events are beyond our control; we should accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.

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