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.