Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #20

Epictetus starts by pointing out that for us to be harmed by another person's words or actions we have to believe that those things are harmful. It's not enough for someone to insult me, I have to believe that the sounds coming out of their mouth are harmful for it to hurt me. If someone is able to provoke me then I am at least partially to blame. Which is why we must not react to things before taking a moment to think.

That we are complicit when hurt by others is a truth that I know. I teach it to my kids. But I struggle to apply it consistently to my own life. Someone will do something or say something and I will be up in arms, ready to fight. Ready to blame the other person and make them pay.

Well, what if they are telling the truth? What if I deserved the treatment I got from them? And if they are not telling the truth, why do I invest so much in their opinions? Yes someone might try to physically harm me or threaten my security in some way, but they cannot keep me from the good. When we exclude indifferent things and even preferred indifferent things I must admit that no one can really harm me.

So I must take a moment before responding to orientate myself to what I know to be true. Then I will be able to keep control and live virtuously.

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #19

Before starting today just a short reminder to be reading along. You can find the Enchiridion online here. I use the translation by Robert Dobbins which you can purchase here.

I was a bit confused on my first read through of chapter nineteen. Epictetus starts by pointing out that you can avoid defeat by avoiding things outside your control. He then says to be careful to not confuse the appearance of success with happiness. Finally he closes by reminding us that the “essence of the good lies within us” and that therefore there is no need for jealousy of any kind. We must only care about being free and therefore we should look down on externals.

With a simple reordering of the chapter’s sentences we can see that Epictetus is addressing the human tendency to compare ourselves to others. Really, this is a form of competition. In our world of social media comparison with others and the jealously and envy that follow are easier than ever. But this is a contest we cannot win because we cannot control the external things these comparisons are based on. Ultimately, no matter how much we might be able to influence our lives towards wealth or beauty these things are strictly speaking outside our control.

How wonderful then that the essence of a good life lies within us, and is within our control! We don’t look to wealth or fame or beauty for fulfillment. Instead we seek freedom by looking down on external things and by living virtuously. Our lives will not be better when we get something that is out there, but when we understand the freedom of concerning ourselves only with the things we control: our judgement, our impulse, our desire, our aversion, and our mental faculties.

J

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #18

Epictetus warns us here to not be concerned about things that seem to be bad omens. In fact, instead of telling us that bad omens are silly he tells us to remind ourselves that they can only concern things external to us such as our ‘body, property, family, or reputation’. We must instead remind ourselves that no matter what happens we can find some benefit in it, and therefore all signs or omens are actually good for us.

I love that Epictetus doesn’t try to discredit ‘bad omens’ but instead cuts to the root of why we shouldn’t be bothered by them even if they are true. So what if bad things and times are coming your way? Does it concern you, who you really are? Or does it concern only things that are outside your control? And since we can learn from all things that may or may not happen what is our worry?

Bad omens or not, we all know that we will face with bad times and circumstances in our lives. None of us can escape aging, sickness, and death. Instead of worrying that bad things might come our way we should instead expect that ‘bad’ things are going to happen to us. Since we know this we can make up our minds to learn from everything that happens to us whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’. No matter what happens we will still be able to pursue virtue in all that we do, nothing can keep us from virtue save ourselves.

J

The Historical Reliability of the Gospels

Sorting through the mountains of information regarding the historical reliability of the gospels is difficult and daunting. The subjects are many, including textual criticism, history, comparative study between the gospels, the nature of memory, oral storytelling, the question of genre, etc. How does one pick out what is important? How does one approach the reams of material in each of these categories? 

Note: This is not an academic paper, and thus is not footnoted. For more reading I would suggest either E. P. Sanders (The Historical Figure of Jesus) or Geza Vermes (Jesus). 

Thankfully, a whole lot of this information can be simply put aside once a few things are acknowledged. Starting with textual criticism, and without getting into details, there is good reason to think our copies of the Greek text of the gospels are very good. This doesn't mean the claims of the gospels are accurate, but it does mean that we know the texts of the gospels were not greatly corrupted in the copying process. Having recognized this, we don't need to worry about textual criticism for the question at hand. 

The study of memory has thrown doubt on how solid our memories really are, but there is not to much to be done about it. Having multiple sources is good because it reduces the chances of memory being wrong. Studies on oral storytelling have been brought into the question of the gospels reliability, but they really don't add too much. We don't have access to the disciples oral culture, so studies of modern oral storytelling cultures are interesting, but far from conclusive. Whatever genre the gospels are, early Christians seemed to think that they reflected real events. We can and should ask the question of whether they are accurate or not even if there was not an expectation of modern historical accuracy. 

So, the texts are good enough. Memory is what it is, and we can and should ask if the events in the gospels really happened, but perhaps without being too picky about detail. And this is exactly where we find some big problems.

Comparative study of the gospels demonstrates substantial agreement between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew and Luke seem to have used Mark as a source, and so usually when they agree with Mark they agree with each other. This agreement doesn't mean historical reliability because Mark might have been wrong. Where they don't have Mark to follow, we see some serious differences between Matthew and Luke. 

The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are so different as to be contradictory. Matthew has Joseph and Mary living in Bethlehem one to two years after Jesus' birth (when the wise men visit), and then avoiding Judea at all costs by first fleeing to Egypt and then moving to Nazareth. Luke has Joseph and Mary move back to Nazareth after Mary's purification and then visit the temple every year in Jerusalem. So if Luke is right then the Wise Men visited a Jesus who wasn't there. And Mary and Joseph didn't avoid Judea at all. Matthew and Luke seem to be working with different sources that don't agree with another, and for which there is no easy way to make them fit together. 

The resurrection accounts are all over the place. There is agreement that Jesus was dead and buried, but outside of that the details are a forest of minor disagreement. There might be a way to harmonize them save for one substantial difference between Matthew and Luke. Matthew has Jesus commanding the disciples to go to Galilee, and Luke has Jesus commanding the disciples to stay in Jerusalem. Whether or not the disciples stayed in Jerusalem or went to Galilee Jesus is reported as giving two contradictory commands. 

So for two of the most important historical questions for Christian belief and practice, the birth of Jesus and his resurrection, there is not agreement between the sources. And we don't have any other sources. So Matthew and Luke cannot both be right on Jesus' birth. One of them might be right, but we couldn't know because we don't have any other sources. In fact they might both be wrong. Comparative study of the gospels alerts us that on some important events the sources don't agree, and therefore we don't have unified testimony in the way  we would like. I have given only two examples, but there are more. 

When we dive into historical study as a whole, the gospels are sometimes out of step with what we know about the ancient world. Luke has the census of Quirinius happening when Herod the Great ruled, but these events were ten years apart. Some of the details about Jesus' trial seem strange and out of step with what we would expect. So the gospels don't always agree with what we know about the rest of the ancient world. 

These observations don't mean the gospels are wrong about everything. Possibility the gospels get many things right. What these observations mean is that we don't know. What we know is that the gospels are sometimes wrong and not always in agreement with each other. In this they are much like any other historical documents. But given that we don't have any other sources of Jesus' life, and that gospels are at best a second hand telling of the events of Jesus' life, and don't even know for sure who wrote them, pronouncing them historically reliable seems a stretch. 

Again, this isn't to say they are wrong about everything. Or right. We just don't know. Certainly we can read them as we would other historical sources and give them the benefit of the doubt unless we know better. But this isn't how Christians read the gospels or use the gospels. Christians make the claim that the gospels are true. But this can't be. Jesus can't have both told his disciples to go to Galilee and stay in Jerusalem. And both couldn't have happened the way the gospel writers describe the events. Granted, this one disagreement doesn't make the gospels wholly unreliable, but it does prove that you cannot assume they are accurate and reliable. 

Christians make claims that need the historical reliability that the gospels are unable to give us. The Christian message is that Jesus died for us and rose from the dead to save us from eternal punishment. Christians claim that Jesus is the Lord of all people, and that all people must believe in him and bow the knee or face eternal torture in hell. This message demands a total life change from all people and threatens terrible consequences if it is ignored. 

But then we don't have documents that we know are historically reliable. How can eternal punishment be threatened when we don't even know for certain about Jesus' life? 

Some might say that there is enough. That the gospels agree on the main points. This amounts to saying even though I know at least parts of the gospels must be historically unreliable because of their disagreement, that where ever the gospels agree it must be true. This is first a non sequitor: all the gospels might be wrong about an event they agree on. The truth is that we don't know. Furthermore if only the agreement of the gospels is taken as true, then there is not much left to work with besides a skeleton of facts that doesn't lead to much. 

Basic agreement with substantial disagreement in the details seems hardly reassuring in light of the seriousness of Christian claims. The virgin birth, for example, is important for Christian theology. But Luke and Matthew tell two entirely different stories about it. These stories do not directly support the other even if they are compatible. They both could be true, they both could be false, only one of them might be true. We don't know. That Luke and Matthew agree that Mary was a virgin doesn't mean they are historically reliable on that particular fact! And the doctrine of the Incarnation, which is central to Christianity, depends on Jesus being born of a virgin and the Holy Spirit. 

In short, we know that the gospels are occasionally not historically reliable, and we don't know know where they are historically reliable. This directly undermines claims of Christianity to be true, based on historical happenings. The truth is, we don't know for sure what happened with Jesus because we don't know if or where the gospels are historically reliable. 

J

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #17

Epictetus encourages us to think of ourselves as if we were in a play. The director of the play will decide whether the play is short or long, and what role we are put into. The short version of a really short chapter is that we have to accept the providence of god. 

My first thought on reading this chapter is to just ignore it. I don't believe in an almighty god who is directing all things, nor do I think it is helpful to just accept where you are. I can't agree that you should just accept being poor if the opportunity to change that situation presents itself. 

But perhaps the main point isn't to stop people from acquiring wealth if they are able. Epictetus places the emphasis on how the accomplished actor will play the role assigned to himself with excellence. So I should strive for virtue and excellence where I am at in life, at any moment in my life. Sitting around bemoaning the fact that I am not a business leader certainly isn't going to get me there. Pining away while wishing for wealth is not going to help me secure any. If however I strive for excellence and virtue where ever I am at, then I might both secure what is truly valuable and even some preferred indifferent things such as wealth and status. 

This seems like good advice to me: don't whine, pursue excellence where you are. 

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #16

In chapter sixteen Epictetus encourages us to guard ourselves against believing that another person's loss of child (or material possessions) is 'truly bad'. We should be willing to sympathize with other people when they are grieving, but not with our 'whole heart and soul'. We are to remember that people get upset not by what happens but by their view of what has happened. 

I find myself in disagreement with Epictetus here. Even if the pain someone else feels is due to their judgments about a situation, this doesn't make the pain they feel less real. For example, someone might be devastated by loss of a keepsake from their grandmother or grandfather. Even accepting that the keepsake is just a material object doesn't make losing it not painful. Accept in truly childish situations, like if someone was heartbroken over their PlayStation 4 breaking down, I think we should recognize that they are hurting and sympathize with them. 

In the case of losing a child, again I think Epictetus goes too far. Although it is impossible for us to guarantee that our children will never experience harm, the loss of a child cannot be dismissed indifferent or placed on the level of losing material possessions. We are not ourselves in a vacuum, but in community. I am not myself in the absence of my family, friends, and larger community; instead, I am only truly myself in the context of my family, friends, and larger community. Of course family and friends are outside of my control, but they are also part of me. So the loss of a child is a loss of part of one's self. 

My position on this probably means I am not stoic, at least not all the way up and down. For myself, I think it is possible to genuinely mourn the loss of a loved one and recognize that we cannot keep them from death and harm. I believe that this is healthy, to genuinely mourn and to understand what we can and cannot control, to not repress our feelings but at the same time to keep ourselves from despair. 

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #15

Before starting today just a short reminder to be reading along. You can find the Enchiridion online here. I use the translation by Robert Dobbins which you can purchase here.

Epictetus writes in chapter fifteen that we are to always behave as if we were at a dinner party. If and when food or drink comes by we take some, but not too much. We don't pull the tray back if it has passed us, nor do we go to the tray before it has arrived. Epictetus tells us to behave in a similar fashion with children, wife, status, and wealth. If we do so he assures us that we will have a place at the table of the gods. If we take it further and reject what is on offer, then we will share in the power of the gods, and might even be considered divine by future generations. 

This advice helps to highlight the differences between stoic thought and modern life. Today people are encouraged to get out there and take what they can get. Many people spend their lives chasing wealth and status, trying to find the perfect relationship. Epictetus would call them slaves. The advice to behave as at a dinner party is based on focusing only on what we can control, and desiring only what we control. His advice to take these things as they come is based on a recognition that wealth, status, marriage, and children are pleasant things. No harm in having them. But if we make it our lives ambition to pursue these things we are trying to control that which we cannot, and we will be disappointed. 

J

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #14

Epictetus starts this chapter in bracing fashion, calling us foolish if we want our children or wife to be immortal. Of course he realizes that we don't think this way, but that people in general tend to worry about our loved ones. He goes on to say we are naive if we expect our slave to be honest. Hopefully none of the readers of this blog have any slaves, but this would apply roughly to employees to employers to retail establishments. We cannot avoid meeting with death and dishonestly in this life, along with many other unpleasant things. 

We can avoid disappointment by focusing our efforts on what is within our control. If we desire only what is within our control, then we cannot be disappointed, for no one will be able to keep those things away from us. "If you would be free, then, do not wish to have, or avoid, things that other people control, because then you must serve as their slave."

These are hard, uncompromising words. The world around us is outside of our control, from the lives of our loved ones to the person who cuts us off in traffic to the unfriendly waitress at the restaurant. We cannot have our desire set on not meeting with death, dishonestly, cheating, rudeness, etc. These things are outside our control. Trying to control death or other people is delusional. We can only control our intentions. If we will desire virtue, and focus on that, then we will be free. 

I've been trying to apply this in traffic. So often someone will cut me off and I will get angry, sometimes very angry. But this is wanting something that is outside of my control! I cannot control other people, so wanting that everyone who ever drives in my vicinity to behave properly is just silly. It doesn't matter that they shouldn't do it. Of course they shouldn't. But I can only control myself. Furthermore, when I get angry at strangers in this way I am putting them in charge of my happiness, tranquility, and freedom. 

I still have the initial feelings of anger come up, but I am trying to remember the simple truth that they are outside my control, and that I want to be free. So I will focus on what I can control and desire that. 

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #13

In another short chapter of just a few sentences Epictetus tells us that we cannot worry about what others think about us if we want to make progress. In particular we cannot worry if people think us ignorant or naive. And if someone seems to be impressed by us, then we shouldn't really believe it. We cannot expect to keep ourselves in line with Nature, focused wholly on what we can control, and at the same time in line with things external to us. 

This isn't a call to just not care about about what others think. This is a call for us to decide what is important and valuable to us. Is virtue what is truly important to us? Do we believe that our only true possessions are our actions? Do we want to be free? Do we understand that freedom is in having what we desire, so that we should only worry about what we can control? 

If virtue is what is truly important to us, then we simply can't worry if people think us ignorant when we are unconcerned with the things of this world. People will not understand when you don't join in the rat race, or when you don't seek to maximize worldly pleasures. Why should you care? You cannot control others. Focus on making progress. 

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #12

Epictetus tells us here that we must stop worrying about things such as losing our material possessions in the future or that our slave will turn out bad if we don't discipline him. "It is better to die of hunger free of grief and apprehension than to live affluent and uneasy. Better that your slave should be bad than you unhappy."

Epictetus tells us to start small and practice not worrying about such things. For the price of something spilled, like wine or oil, we are to remember that we are buying peace and tranquility. When dealing with people we must always remember that they could ignore us or not follow our instructions. The person who has ignored you, even if they owe you, "is not worth entrusting with your peace of mind."

What is the problem with worrying about losing our future material possessions? How could it be better to die of hunger? For the Stoics, material possessions were outside of our control. As were other people. So we cannot expect to make progress in what we control if our time is spent foolishly trying to control what we cannot control. Epictetus's position then is not simply that we should not care as much about things. He wants us to not care about indifferent things so that we can make progress in what truly matters: virtue. 

Whether or not we agree with Epictetus that virtue is the only good and therefore we should not care about anything else, many of us probably care far too much about things that don't really matter. Our culture through advertising and the wiles of the internet encourages us to focus on having the best and finding the best and procuring the best. We are often not worried that we might become destitute but that we might miss out on a more perfect experience. Heaven forbid the color reproduction on our new flat screen isn't as good as another persons! Or that our recipe for pasta salad dressing isn't as sublime as another's!

Is our peace of mind and tranquility worth letting things go? Ninety five percent of the time, yes. Don't stress about spilled milk or cranky co-workers. Buy your tranquility and peace of mind everyday this way.  Don't worry that you will miss something important if you stop worrying about everything. When something is important you will know. Mark the truly important stuff like paying the bills and renewing  the insurance on the calendar. Stop worrying about the rest. The alternative is to live without peace in an attempt to divert a disaster that might always be coming. Instead, start with small things and buy your tranquility now. 

 

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #11

Epictetus encourages us to practice a perspective shift in chapter 11. Instead of saying that we have lost something or that something was taken we are to say that we have returned it. Even if things are stolen we should say that they have been returned, because it doesn't matter how the 'original giver' chooses to take things back. We are to look after the things given to us 'the way a traveler regards a hotel', to be enjoyed only for a time. 

This teaching is based on the stoic belief in providence. For the stoics all things were ordered by Zeus. We are then given by Zeus (or God) things in our lives for a time after which these things are taken away. This includes everything from food to fame to family. These things are outside of our control and we must avoid the mistake of trying to hold on to these things. 

Passages like these are rooted in a belief that many people today might not share. I for one don't believe in an all powerful God who is ordering all things. But the fact remains that I cannot control or hold on to things that are external to me, and I need to watch my perspective on things. I don't own anything except my actions, my intentions. When I attach myself to material possessions or even family and friends I am bound to suffer, for I cannot control anything outside of my intentions. 

This adds a dimension to our ongoing practice. We should not only remember that we have the resources to deal with temptation (#10), but also remember that we cannot not truly lose anything. 

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #10

In chapter 10 Epictetus tells us that whenever we are tempted by something we need to remember that we have the ability within ourselves to resist. If we are tempted by the sight of a beautiful woman or man, we will find the power to say no if we look for it. If we are faced with discomfort we will find the endurance we need if we look for it. Over time Epictetus says we will gain confidence that we can meet every challenge life brings our way. 

What we believe about ourselves is important. Do we believe that we need to drink beer or wine to feel okay? Do we believe that after a long days hard work we deserve a drink, or some netflix, or whatever it is we use to self medicate? If so, then when life takes a turn for the worse, how much more will we need these things? 

For myself, when I needed to get a handle on my drinking, the only thing that worked was realizing that I didn't have to drink. Really. I didn't have to do it. Now I really wanted to continue drinking four to six drinks every night, but acknowledging that and then realizing that I had the ability to say no really helped me. I don't present this as a cure all, nor do I think it would work for everyone. Certainly if you have a problem with alcohol and you know you cannot quit by yourself then you need to seek professional help. 

With that said, I believe many of us don't realize how strong we are, how much ability we have to say no to the wrong things and yes to the right things if we simply stop and look for it.

I am tempted to by a beautiful woman. Do I have to lust after her? No, I don't.

I am tempted to eat another slice of pizza after already having three slices. Do I have to eat it? No, I don't have to eat it. 

Instead of simply following the whims of temptation, a moments reflection on what we really want and our innate abilities might be all that is needed to beat temptation. But this process must be practiced, moment by moment for those who wish to pursue the moral life. That is the hard part. But you can do it, you have the ability to endure in this practice if you simply look for it inside yourself. 

 

Update

Back in December the blog fell by the wayside as I was preparing to start school, and since school has started I have been busy.  

But I have July off, so I hope to build a good rhythm that I can carry over to when school starts again. I will be continuing the Let's Read Epictetus series, and I plan to finish the Deconversion series. If the deconversion series goes well, I hope to get the posts together with some footnotes and references in a book (small enough to be called a pamphlet?) format. I will probably put up a PDF for download. 

J

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #9

In chapter 9 Epictetus makes the bold claim that things like sickness and physical disability are problems for the body, but not the mind. The strategy here is to realize that the body is outside of our control, and so not truly us. Thus, being outside of our control we should not seek to control it, nor should we worry about it. 

This is an odd passage for me to come back to this series on, as I find myself in disagreement with Epictetus here. Part of my problem with this passage is that I don't think such a strong line between the body and the mind can be drawn. The dependence of the mind upon the brain (which is part of the body of course), even if it is admitted that the brain is not the mind, makes Epictetus' conclusion suspect. The status of the brain has a direct bearing on the mind, for instance under the effect of different drugs a person might be open to all sorts of things to which they would normally be closed.  That is, the state of the body can effect our ability to hold to our choices and intentions. I don't believe we can draw such a strict line between the body and the mind, even if we define the mind as our most inner decision making center. Beyond drugs, regular exercise seems to be of benefit to the brain and therefore the mind. And sickness' long term effects on the brain and therefore the mind cannot be hand waved away by saying sickness only pertains to the body. 

But, perhaps we can simply soften the edge of what Epictetus is saying here. Although sickness can be difficult and certainly effect our body/brain/mind, outside of extreme circumstances we can chose to do what we know to be right. I have frequently had the experience of feeling sick, and being irritable because of it. Trying to tell myself that my cold is a problem for the body and not the mind doesn't do me much good. But I should remember that even though I am irritable, even if my lack of sleep from coughing all night has effected my mind, that I can still treat the people around me with love, respect, and dignity. 

J

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #8

Chapter eight is a single sentence. Here is Robert Dobbin's translation: "Don't hope events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace."

Note that this is not resignation nor is it apathy. The stoics didn't oppose seeking justice (for ourselves and others) or planning for next year or seeking to better the world. We should try to do all these things. But since the realization of circumstance is ultimately outside our control we cannot have our hope in circumstances. Our good is in virtue, not in favorable or even just circumstances. 

Whether circumstances are 'good' or 'bad', they are an opportunity for us to make sound judgments and exercise virtue. Since the circumstances of our lives are ultimately outside our control it makes no sense to rail against what happens to us. We welcome whatever comes to pass because we always have the opportunity to pursue virtue and be at peace no matter what happens. 

This is of course easier said than done, but that is no reason not to try. We will never be a peace if we do not clearly, consistently, and constantly distiguish between what is in our control and what is outside our control.

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #7

Epictetus starts chapter seven with a metaphor about a sailor who chooses to go ashore when his ship makes port. He says a sailor may do a number of things, but that he must always be listening for the captains call to return. And when the call comes, the sailor must be ready to drop everything and return. 

Epictetus here refers to the truth that we must be parted from everything. Whether through our death or the death of our loved ones or the decay of what we own or theft we must be parted from everything. If this is outside our control and will happen, then we need to be ready for it to happen. So Epictetus counsels us to be ready to move on without another thought. 

This sounds harsh to many, as if the ability to move on after the death of a loved one means we didn't love them. But what benefit does it give to our loved one if we cannot move on after they are dead? Nothing. Furthermore, an inability to move on after the death of someone close to us suggests that we were attached to them in an unhealthy way. No stoic that I have read suggests in the least that we shouldn't love our spouses and children. But this doesn't meant that we have to base our happiness on them, for ultimately they are outside of our control. And when we are ready to be parted when fate comes knocking, we are ready to love freely. 

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #6

In chapter six Epictetus moves on to insist that we should only take pride in things that are that are our own. We shouldn't brag about owing a beautiful horse because the horse's beauty is it's own. The only thing that is ours is the wise use of our mental faculties. If we make good judgments and pursue virtue then Epictetus says we can go ahead and indulge our pride. 

This is an interesting chapter because according to the stoic authors that I have read we should expect that we will not reach such a level that we could indulge our pride. I believe that Epictetus instead is trying to get us to focus on what is truly important. We must keep focused on virtue in all that we do. On a daily basis we need to remind ourselves of what is in our control and renounce all that is outside of our control. If we do so then we will be free because we will only desire the things are in our control. 

But so often we get focused on external things. Not many of us today take pride in our horse, but we take pride in our cars, houses, clothes, etc. Epictetus reminds us that external things are not in our control, therefore we should not take pride in external things. This provides us with a good test of where our focus lies. If we find ourselves bragging or taking prideful joy in something then we need to re-orientate ourselves to virtue. 

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #5

Reading straight through from chapter four the first sentence of chapter five seems natural. Epictetus insists that events do not disturb us, but rather our judgments of events disturb us. But in the next sentence Epictetus cuts deep when he insists that death is nothing frightening. He calls attention to the fact that Socrates didn't fear death. Socrates represents the ideal sage, and thus if he didn't fear death, then neither should we.

Death itself isn't frightening, but instead the judgment that death is frightening is what hurts us. If in the case of death, so in the case of everything else. Epictetus insists that we never hold other people responsible if we are unhappy, frustrated, or angry. If we blame others then we don't understand what is in and outside of our control. If we blame ourselves that is better. Better still is to make the correct judgments of events so that we blame neither others or ourselves for anything. 

In his discourses Epictetus says somewhere that no man is ever unhappy because of someone else. This is true, and yet we recoil against it. But we don't ever have anyone else to blame! If we really didn't fear death or poverty or disrepute, then we would be untouchable. So we must look to ourselves.

Are we clearly discerning between what is in our control and outside it? Do we truly only desire virtue? Do we direct our aversion against those things that lead us away from excellence? Are we reminding ourselves that everything is temporary and we must be parted from our possessions and loved ones? 

If we find ourselves disturbed by events, then we know that we are not doing these things consistently in our lives. Thus, taking stock of our emotions about the circumstances that we find ourselves in provides us with a good test of whether we are living in accordance with nature. Then we must work backwards to find where we are out of step with these practices.

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #4

In chapter four Epictetus encourages us to visualize what we can expect before we undertake an action. He uses the example of going to the bathhouse. Before we go to the bathhouse we should remember what the environment is like, so that we will not be caught off guard when something happens that goes against our plan in some way. We may want a quiet bath, but it is outside of our control. We must remember that we always have another goal: to keep our wills in line with nature. Thus, even if our other actions are thwarted in some way, we still have a goal that we can obtain. 

This of course is easier to say than to do. But Epictetus encourages us to do it with every act. In anything we do we cannot control how external circumstances will unfold, but we can always control how we will respond to whatever happens. Fighting against what we cannot control and allowing ours emotions to be controlled by circumstance will always lead to disappointment. Instead, decide ahead of time when you know things might go sideways that you will keep your will in line with nature. 

Let's Read Epictetus: Enchiridion #3

In the third chapter of the Enchiridion Epictetus addresses how to think of things that we like, or bring us benefit, or to which we are attached. He says we should remember what they are and start with little things. He uses the examples of liking a piece of china and loving your wife. With a piece of china we are to remind ourselves of exactly what it is: a piece of china. When we kiss our wife we are to remind ourselves that we are kissing a mortal. If we practice this with external things that we have become attached to then when they are taken from us we won't be disappointed. 

This short chapter (my summary is longer than the chapter itself!) reminds me of the five rememberances in Buddhism. They are as follows: 

  1. I am of the nature to grow old. There is  no way to escape growing old. 
  2. I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health. 
  3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death. 
  4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. 
  5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

A piece of china is temporary, it will break or wear out eventually. We cannot secure a piece of china to be permanent and unchanging so that it will always be there to bring us happiness. As hard as it is to accept, our loved ones are temporary in the same way that we are temporary. As we are here for a short time, so they are here for a short time and we cannot stop them from growing ill and dying. We have an heirloom cast iron pan in our family that could last multiple more generations, but at some point it will be no longer useful. Nothing is permanent, nothing truly lasts. 

If we would find joy and peace, we will have to accept the world as it is, not how we would wish it to be. Acceptance that the world and everything in it is temporary, and that we must be parted from everything that is dear to us, doesn't mean resignation or apathy. We love sunsets because they come and go, because they are temporary. The reality of life is not what brings us suffering and disappointment. Our false judgments and hopes bring us suffering and disappointment. 

Today remember what things really are: your cup of coffee will grow cold before you finish it, your beloved possessions will not last, you must be parted even from your loved ones. Instead of looking to external things, pursue excellence. Focus only on what is in your control. Practice justice, courage, temperance, and prudence in everything.