I decided to spend more time this year with philosophy and I’m not sure why, but I decided to investigate in greater depth the teachings of Epictetus, not the founder, but certainly the greatest exponent of stoicism.
To the average person, stoicism has come to mean, I think, something akin to “grin and bear it.” In other words, it’s merely to put up with life’s woes with a good face.
Nothing is actually further from the truth, for the above implies and is assumed to mean that one is at the same time suffering. Thus, stoicism comes to be similar to the Catholic version of bearing suffering for some greater good.
Actually stoicism is more firmly adjacent to that of Buddhism which works on recognizing suffering is due to attachment to things that are not within one’s actual control.
At it’s most basic Epictetus shows us how to discern what is within our power and what is not, and what is within our power is our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. Control these, he suggests, and one controls all. One cannot control what any other person will do, one cannot control the weather or other natural events, one cannot control time and its ravages. One can control how one relates or thinks about them.
Happiness is derived from thinking rightly about all things, and not being concerned with all that cannot be controlled. Poverty does not concern me, for I may be able to do nothing about that. But I can determine how I will relate to it. Similarly, having a disease that is fatal is something I can do nothing about, but I can control how I will react to it.
One makes choices in all things. One can choose to eat rightly, or suffer the consequences of eating too much or too little. One can choose to become educated, or not. One can choose to be happy or not. Epictetus, being in his time, of course, suggested that God granted humans this ability, and this is what we should be about, the rest is not up to us.
Those who dislike the religious component simply ignore the God portion and find the teachings still perfectly understandable and doable. It is nothing more than free will. Many a prisoner has testified to it, and we all relate to the statement, you can imprison my body but not my mind.
Stoicism becomes much like Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in that it favors the mean in all things. One neither does too much or too little to lie in that perfect realm. Of course Epictetus would be the first to say, that one never reaches perfection, but at least “one can be always striving for it.”
Things in themselves are neither good nor evil, but how we relate to them are. If they bring us fear, desire, loathing, or anything of a base nature, then that does not make them evil, but only makes our method of relating evil.
If one concludes that in our modern world life careens ever and ever more out of control, then stoicism offers real relief. As live becomes more complicated, less and less is within any individual’s control, and thus it becomes more necessary that what remains with our control, i.e., how we relate to life, all the more important.
I suggest everyone start here and then move on to other works of a similar nature, the goal being to develop a sense of peace and happiness within one’s life.