On Things in Our Power and Things Not in Our Power – Epictetus * How To Be a Stoic. Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living – Massimo Pigliucci.

Who am I? What am I doing? How ought I to live my life?

Moral character is the only truly worthy thing to cultivate; health, education, and even wealth are “preferred indifferents”. Such “externals” do not define who we are as individuals and have nothing to do with our personal worth, which depends on our character and our exercise of the virtues.

Stoicism is not about suppressing or hiding emotion, rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is also about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter.

It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.

To a Stoic, it ultimately does not matter if we think the Logos is God or Nature, as long as we recognize that a decent human life is about the cultivation of one’s character and concern for other people (and even for Nature itself) and is best enjoyed by way of a proper, but not fanatical detachment from mere worldly goods.

Whether you are rich or poor, healthy or sick, educated or ignorant, it makes no difference to your ability to live a moral life and thus achieve what the Stoics called ataraxia, or tranquillity of mind.

Epictetus (55–135AD) was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He was born a slave at Hierapolis, Phrygia and lived in Rome until his banishment, when he went to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece for the rest of his life. His teachings were written down and published by his pupil Arrian in his Discourses and Enchiridion.

from Arrian’s Discourses

On Things in Our Power and Things Not in Our Power

Of our faculties in general you will find that none can take cognizance of itself; none therefore has the power to approve or disapprove its own action. Our grammatical faculty for instance: how far can that take cognizance? Only so far as to distinguish expression. Our musical faculty? Only so far as to distinguish tune. Does any one of these then take cognizance of itself? By no means. If you are writing to your friend, when you want to know what words to write grammar will tell you; but whether you should write to your friend or should not write grammar will not tell you.

And in the same way music will tell you about tunes, but whether at this precise moment you should sing and play the lyre or should not sing nor play the lyre it will not tell you.

What will tell you then? That faculty which takes cognizance of itself and of all things else. What is this? The reasoning faculty: for this alone of the faculties we have received is created to comprehend even its own nature; that is to say, what it is and what it can do, and with what precious qualities it has come to us, and to comprehend all other faculties as well.

For what else is it that tells us that gold is a goodly thing? For the gold does not tell us. Clearly it is the faculty which can deal with our impressions.

What else is it which distinguishes the faculties of music, grammar, and the rest, testing their uses and pointing out the due seasons for their use? It is reason and nothing else.

The gods then, as was but right, put in our hands the one blessing that is best of all and master of all, that and nothing else, the power to deal rightly with our impressions, but everything else they did not put in our hands. Was it that they would not? For my part I think that if they could have entrusted us with those other powers as well they would have done so, but they were quite unable. Prisoners on the earth and in an earthly body and among earthly companions, how was it possible that we should not be hindered from the attainment of these powers by these external fetters?

But what says Zeus?

‘Epictetus, if it were possible I would have made your body and your possessions, those trifles that you prize, free and untrammelled. But as things are, never forget this, this body is not yours, it is but a clever mixture of clay. But since I could not make it free, I gave you a portion in our divinity, this faculty of impulse to act and not to act, of will to get and will to avoid, in a word the faculty which can turn impressions to right use. If you pay heed to this, and put your affairs in its keeping, you will never suffer let nor hindrance, you will not groan, you will blame no man, you will flatter none.

What then?

Does all this seem but little to you?’

Heaven forbid!

‘Are you content then?’

So surely as I hope for the gods’ favour.

But, as things are, though we have it in our power to pay heed to one thing and to devote ourselves to one, yet instead of this we prefer to pay heed to many things and to be bound fast to many, our body, our property, brother and friend, child and slave. Inasmuch then as we are bound fast to many things, we are burdened by them and dragged down. That is why, if the weather is bad for sailing, we sit distracted and keep looking continually and ask: What wind is blowing? ‘The north wind.‘ What have we to do with that? ‘When will the west wind blow?‘ When it so chooses, good sir, or when Aeolus chooses. For God made Aeolus the master of the winds, not you. What follows?

We must make the best of those things that are in our power, and take the rest as nature gives it.

What do you mean by ‘nature’?

I mean, God’s will.

‘What? Am I to be beheaded now, and I alone? Why?

Would you have had all beheaded, to give you consolation? Will you not stretch out your neck as Lateranus did in Rome when Nero ordered his beheadal? For he stretched out his neck and took the blow, and when the blow dealt him was too weak he shrank up a little and then stretched it out again. Nay more, on a previous occasion, when Nero’s freedman Epaphroditus came to him and asked him the cause of his offence, he answered, ‘If I want to say anything, I will say it to your master.‘

What then must a man have ready to help him in such emergencies? Surely this: he must ask himself, ‘What is mine, and what is not mine? What may I do, what may I not do? I must die. But must I die groaning? I must be imprisoned. But must I whine as well? I must suffer exile. Can any one then hinder me from going with a smile, and a good courage, and at peace?

‘Tell the secret!‘

I refuse to tell, for this is in my power.

‘But I will chain you.‘

What say you, fellow? Chain me? My leg you will chain, yes, but my will, no, not even Zeus can conquer that.

I will imprison you.’

My bit of a body, you mean.

‘I will behead you.’

Why? When did I ever tell you that I was the only man in the world that could not be beheaded?

These are the thoughts that those who pursue philosophy should ponder, these are the lessons they should write down day by day, in these they should exercise themselves.

Thrasea used to say ‘I had rather be killed today than exiled tomorrow’. What then did Rufus say to him? ‘If you choose it as the harder, what is the meaning of your foolish choice? If as the easier, who has given you the easier? Will you not study to be content with what is given you?‘

It was in this spirit that Agrippinus used to say, do you know what? ‘I will not stand in my own way!‘ News was brought him, ‘Your trial is on in the Senate!‘ ‘Good luck to it, but the fifth hour is come’, this was the hour when he used to take his exercise and have a cold bath, ‘let us go and take exercise.‘ When he had taken his exercise they came and told him, ‘You are condemned.‘ ‘Exile or death?‘ he asked. ‘Exile.‘ ‘And my property?‘ ‘It is not confiscated.‘ ‘Well then, let us go to Aricia and dine.‘

Here you see the result of training, as training should be, of the will to get and will to avoid, so disciplined that nothing can hinder or frustrate them.

I must die, must I? If at once, then I am dying: if soon, I dine now, as it is time for dinner, and afterwards when the time comes I will die. And die how? As befits one who gives back what is not his own.

How One May Be True To One’s Character In Everything

To the rational creature that which is against reason is alone past bearing; the rational he can always bear. Blows are not by nature intolerable.

‘What do you mean?‘

Let me explain; the Lacedaemonians bear flogging, because they have learnt that it is in accord with reason.

‘But is it not intolerable to hang oneself?‘

At any rate, when a man comes to feel that it is rational, he goes and hangs himself at once. In a word, if we look to it we shall see that by nothing is the rational creature so distressed as by the irrational, and again to nothing so much attracted as to the rational.

But rational and irrational mean different things to different persons, just as good and evil, expedient and inexpedient, are different for different persons. That is the chief reason why we need education, that we may learn, so to adjust our preconceptions of rational and irrational to particular conditions as to be in harmony with nature.

But to decide what is rational and irrational we not only estimate the value of things external, but each one of us considers what is in keeping with his character. For one man thinks it reasonable to perform the meanest office for another; for he looks merely to this, that if he refuses he will be beaten and get no food, while if he does it nothing hard or painful will be done to him. To another it seems intolerable not only to do this service himself, but even to suffer another to do it. If then you ask me, ‘Am I to do it or not?‘ I shall say to you, to get food is worth more than to go without it, and to be flogged is worth less than to escape flogging: therefore, if you measure your affairs by this standard, go and do it.

‘But I shall be false to myself.‘

That is for you to bring into the question, not for me. For it is you who know yourself; you know at how much you put your worth, and at what price you sell yourself. For different men sell at different prices.

That is why Agrippinus, when Florus was considering whether he should go down to Nero’s shows, to perform some part in them himself, said to him, ‘Go down.‘ And when he asked, ‘Why do you not go down yourself?‘ said, ‘Because I do not even consider the question.‘ For when a man once lowers himself to think about such matters, and to value external things and calculate about them he has almost forgotten his own character.

What is it you ask me? ‘Is death or life to be preferred?‘ I say ‘life’. ‘Pain or pleasure?‘ I say ‘pleasure‘.

‘But, if I do not act in the tragedy, I shall be beheaded.‘

Go then and act your tragedy, but I will not do so. You ask me, ‘Why?‘ I answer, ‘Because you count yourself to be but an ordinary thread in the tunic.‘ What follows then? You ought to think how you can be like other men, just as one thread does not wish to have something special to distinguish it from the rest: but I want to be the purple, that touch of brilliance which gives distinction and beauty to the rest. Why then do you say to me, ‘Make yourself like unto the many?‘ If I do that, I shall no longer be the purple.

Priscus Helvidius too saw this, and acted on it. When Vespasian sent to him not to come into the Senate he answered, ‘You can forbid me to be a senator; but as long as I am a senator I must come in.‘

‘Come in then,‘ he says, ‘and be silent.‘

‘Question me not and I will be silent.‘

‘But I am bound to question you.‘

‘And I am bound to say what seems right to me.‘

‘But, if you say it, I shall kill you.‘

‘When did I tell you, that I was immortal? You will do your part, and I mine. It is yours to kill, mine to die without quailing: yours to banish, mine to go into exile without groaning.‘

What good, you ask, did Priscus do, being but one? What good does the purple do to the garment? Just this, that being purple it gives distinction and stands out as a fine example to the rest. Another man, had Caesar in such circumstances told him not to come into the Senate, would have said, ‘Thank you for sparing me.‘ Such a one he would never have forbidden to come in; he would know that he would either sit silent like a pipkin or if he spoke would say what he knew Caesar wished and pile on more besides.

This spirit too was shown by a certain athlete, who was threatened with death if he did not sacrifice his virility. When his brother, who was a philosopher, came to him and said, ‘Brother, what will you do? Are we to let the knife do its work and still go into the gymnasium?‘ he would not consent, but endured to meet his death. (Here some one asked, ‘How did he do so, as an athlete or as a philosopher?’) He did so as a man, and a man who had wrestled at Olympia and been proclaimed victor, one who had passed his days in such a place as that, not one who anoints himself at Bato’s. Another man would have consented to have even his head out off, if he could have lived without it.

That is what I mean by keeping your character: such is its power with those who have acquired the habit of carrying it into every question that arises.

‘Go to, Epictetus, have yourself shaved.‘

If I am a philosopher I say, ‘I will not be shaved.’

‘I must behead you then.‘

Behead me, if it is better for you so.

One asked, ‘How then shall we discover, each of us, what suits his character?‘

How does the bull, he answered, at the lion’s approach, alone discover what powers he is endowed with, when he stands forth to protect the whole herd? It is plain that with the possession of his power the consciousness of it also is given him. So each of us, who has power of this sort, will not be unaware of its possession. Like the bull, the man of noble nature does not become noble of a sudden; he must train through the winter, and make ready, and not lightly leap to meet things that concern him not.

Of one thing beware, O man; see what is the price at which you sell your will. If you do nothing else, do not sell your will cheap. The great, heroic style, it may be, belongs to others, to Socrates and men like him.

‘If then this is our true nature, why do not all men, or many, show it?‘

What? Do all horses turn out swift, are all dogs good at the scent?

‘What am I to do then? Since I have no natural gifts, am I to make no effort for that reason?‘

Heaven forbid. Epictetus is not better than Socrates: if only he is as good as Socrates I am content. For I shall never be a Milo, yet I do not neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, do we abandon our effort in any field because we despair of the first place.

*

from

ARRIAN’S DISCOURSES OF EPICTETUS


How To Be a Stoic. Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living

Massimo Pigliucci

Who am I? What am I doing? How ought I to live my life?

Stoicism teaches us to acknowledge our emotions, reflect on what causes them and redirect them for our own good. But sometimes no goal seems more elusive than leading a good life.

Professor Massimo Pigliucci explores this remarkable philosophy and how its wisdom can be applied to our everyday lives in the quest for meaning. He shows how stoicism teaches us the importance of a person’s character, integrity and compassion.

In How to be a Stoic, with its practical tips and exercises, meditations and mindfulness, he also explains how relevant it is to every part of our modern lives.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He holds PhDs in genetics, evolutionary biology, and philosophy and has written for many publications, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. The author or editor of ten books, he lives in New York City. Massimo blogs at platofootnote.org and at howtobeastoic.org.

CHAPTER 1

THE UNSTRAIGHTFORWARD PATH

“Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” DANTE, THE DIVINE COMEDY: INFERNO, CANTO I

IN EVERY CULTURE we know of, whether it be secular or religious, ethnically diverse or not, the question of how to live is central. How should we handle life’s challenges and vicissitudes? How should we conduct ourselves in the world and treat others? And the ultimate question: how do we best prepare for the final test of our character, the moment when we die?

The numerous religions and philosophies that have been devised over human history to address these issues offer answers ranging from the mystical to the hyper-rational. Recently, even science has gotten into the business, with an onslaught of technical papers and popular books on happiness and how to achieve it, accompanied by the obligatory brain scans displaying “your brain on …” whatever it is that may increase or decrease your satisfaction with life. Correspondingly, the tools to seek answers to existential questions vary as much as the approaches that have been used, from sacred texts to deep meditation, from philosophical arguments to scientific experiments.

The resulting panorama is truly astounding and reflects both the creativity of the human spirit and the urgency that we obviously attach to inquiries into meaning and purpose. You can embrace any of a large variety of options within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions, for instance; or choose one of a panoply of schools of Buddhism; or opt instead for Taoism, or Confucianism, among many others. If philosophy, rather than religion, is your cup of tea, then you can turn to existentialism, secular humanism, secular Buddhism, ethical culture, and so forth. Or you can arrive instead at the conclusion that there is no meaning, indeed, the very search for it is meaningless, and embrace a “happy” sort of nihilism (yes, there is such a thing).

For my part, I’ve become a Stoic. I do not mean that I have started keeping a stiff upper lip and suppressing my emotions. As much as I love the character of Mr. Spock (which Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry purportedly modeled after his naive, as it turns out, understanding of Stoicism), these traits represent two of the most common misconceptions about what it means to be a Stoic.

In reality, Stoicism is not about suppressing or hiding emotion, rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is also about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.

As I explain in this book, in practice Stoicism involves a dynamic combination of reflecting on theoretical precepts, reading inspirational texts, and engaging in meditation, mindfulness, and other spiritual exercises.

One of the key tenets of Stoicism is that we ought to recognize, and take seriously, the difference between what we can and cannot master. This distinction, also made by some Buddhist doctrines, is often taken to indicate a tendency of Stoics to withdraw from social engagement and public life, but a closer look at both Stoic writings and, more importantly, the lives of famous Stoics will dispel this impression: Stoicism was very much a philosophy of social engagement and encouraged love for all humankind and Nature as well. It is this apparently contradictory tension between the advice to focus on one’s thoughts and the social dimension of Stoicism that drew me to it as a practice.

I arrived at Stoicism, not on my way to Damascus, but through a combination of cultural happenstance, life’s vicissitudes, and deliberate philosophical choice. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that my path would eventually lead me to the Stoics. Raised in Rome, I have considered Stoicism part of my cultural heritage ever since I studied ancient Greek and Roman history and philosophy in high school, although it wasn’t until recently that I sought to make its principles part of my everyday life.

I am by profession a scientist and philosopher, and I have therefore always been inclined to seek more coherent ways to understand the world (through science) and better choices for living my life (through philosophy). A few years ago, I wrote a book, Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life, in which I explored such a framework, which I called sciphi. The basic approach was to combine the ancient idea of virtue ethics, which focuses on character development and the pursuit of personal excellence as the pillars providing meaning to our lives, with the latest that the natural and social sciences tell us about human nature and how we work, fail, and learn. As it happened, this was only the beginning of my journey toward philosophical self-awareness.

Something else was going on at the time that made me pause and reflect. I have not been a religious person since my teenage years (I was prompted to leave Catholicism, in part, by reading Bertrand Russell’s famous Why I Am Not a Christian in high school), and as such I have been on my own in dealing with questions of where my morals and the meaning in my life come from. I take it that an increasing number of people in the United States and across the world find themselves facing a similar conundrum.

While sympathetic to the idea that lack of religious affiliation should be just as acceptable a choice in life as any religious one, and strongly supportive of the constitutional separation of church and state in the United States and elsewhere, I have also grown increasingly dissatisfied with (make that downright irritated by) the intolerant anger of the so-called New Atheists, represented by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others.

Although public criticism of religion (or of any idea) is the staple of a healthy democratic society, people don’t respond very well to being belittled and insulted. On this point the Stoic philosopher Epictetus clearly agrees with me, all the while displaying his characteristic sense of humor: “At this point you run the risk of him saying, ‘What business is that of yours, sir? What are you to me?’ Pester him further, and he is liable to punch you in the nose. I myself was once keen for this sort of discourse, until I met with just such a reception.”

There are, of course, alternatives to the New Atheism if you want to pursue a nonreligious approach to life, including secular Buddhism and secular humanism. Yet these two paths, the two major ones on offer for those seeking a meaningful secular existence, are somehow unsatisfactory to me, though for opposite reasons. I find Buddhism’s currently dominant modes a bit too mystical, and its texts opaque and hard to interpret, especially in light of what we know about the world and the human condition from modern science (and despite a number of neurobiological studies that persuasively show the mental benefits of meditation). Secular humanism, which I have embraced for years, suffers from the opposite problem: it is too dependent on science and a modern conception of rationality, with the result that, despite the best efforts of its supporters, it comes across as cold and not the sort of thing you want to bring your kids to on a Sunday morning. Hence, I think, the spectacular lack of success (numerically speaking) of secular humanist organizations.

By contrast, in Stoicism I have found a rational, science-friendly philosophy that includes a metaphysics with a spiritual dimension, is explicitly open to revision, and, most importantly, is eminently practical. The Stoics accepted the scientific principle of universal causality: everything has a cause, and everything in the universe unfolds according to natural processes. There is no room for spooky transcendental stuff. But they also believed that the universe is structured according to what they called the Logos, which can be interpreted as either God or simply what is sometimes termed “Einstein’s god”: the simple, indubitable fact that Nature is understandable by reason.

Although other components of the Stoic system are important, by far the distinguishing feature of Stoicism is its practicality: it began in the guise of, and has always been understood as, a quest for a happy and meaningful life. Not surprisingly, then, its fundamental texts, pretty much all of them coming to us from the late Roman Stoa (as the Stoic school was called), since most of the early writings have been lost, are paragons of clarity. Epictetus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Marcus Aurelius speak to us in plain language, far removed from the often cryptic Buddhist texts or even the flowery allegories of early Christianity.

One of my favorite quotations, again from Epictetus, exemplifies this down-to-earth practicality: “Death is necessary and cannot be avoided. I mean, where am I going to go to get away from it?”

The final reason I turned to Stoicism is that this philosophy speaks most directly and convincingly to the inevitability of death and how to prepare for it. I recently passed the half-century mark, a seemingly arbitrary point in life that nonetheless prompted me to engage in broader reflections: who am I, and what am I doing? As a nonreligious person, I was also looking for some sort of playbook on how to prepare for the eventual end of my life. Beyond my own preoccupations, we live in a society where life keeps being extended by modern science and more and more of us will consequently find ourselves needing to decide what to do with our existence for decades after retiring. Moreover, whatever we decide about the meaning of our extended lives, we also need to find ways of preparing ourselves and our loved ones to face the permanent demise of our own consciousness, of our unique presence in this world. And we need to know how to die in a dignified way that allows us to achieve tranquillity of mind and is of comfort to those who survive us.

Famously, the original Stoics devoted a great deal of effort and many writings to what Seneca referred to as the ultimate test of character and principle. “We die every day,” he wrote to his friend Gaius Lucillius. Seneca connected this test to the rest of our existence on earth: “A man cannot live well“ if he knows not how to die well.” Life, for the Stoics, is an ongoing project, and death, its logical, natural end point, is nothing special in and of itself and nothing that we should particularly fear. This view resonated with me, striking a balance as it did between opposite attitudes to which I had been exposed and which I found unpalatable: no fantasizing about an immortality of which there is neither evidence nor reason to believe in, but also no secular dismissal, or worse, avoidance, of the issue of death and personal extinction.

For these and other reasons, I’m not alone in my quest to revive this ancient practical philosophy and adapt it to twenty-first-century life.

Every fall thousands of people participate in Stoic Week, a worldwide philosophy event-cum-social science experiment organized by a team at the University of Exeter in England, with the collaboration of academic philosophers, cognitive therapists, and everyday practitioners from all over the world. The goal of Stoic Week is twofold: on the one hand, to get people to learn about Stoicism and its relevance to their lives, and on the other hand, to collect systematic data to see whether practicing Stoicism actually makes a difference.

The preliminary results from the Exeter initiative are tentative (in future Stoic Weeks, more sophisticated experimental protocols will be used and larger sample sizes collected), but they are promising. Participants in the third international Stoic Week, for instance, reported a 9 percent increase in positive emotions, an 11 percent decrease in negative emotions, and a 14 percent improvement in life satisfaction after one week of practice. (The previous year the team conducted longer-term follow-ups, and they confirmed the initial results for people who kept practicing.) Participants also seem to think that Stoicism makes them more virtuous: 56 percent gave Stoic practice a high mark in that regard. Of course, this is a self-selected sample of people who have an interest in Stoicism and buy into at least some of its assumptions and practices. Then again, for people who are already somewhat committed to this particular approach to see such significant changes in the span of a few days ought to at least encourage interested others to pay attention.

Results like these are not entirely surprising, given that Stoicism is the philosophical root of a number of evidence based psychological therapies, including Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy and Albert Ellis’s rational emotive behavior therapy. Of Ellis it has been said that “no individuals, not even Freud himself, has had a greater impact on modern psychotherapy.” Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust and wrote the best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning. His moving and inspiring story of resilience can be read as a contemporary example of Stoicism in practice. Both Ellis and Frankl acknowledged Stoicism as an important influence in developing their therapeutic approaches, with Frankl characterizing logotherapy as a type of existential analysis.

Another compelling account of Stoicism is provided by Vice Admiral James Stockdale in his memoir In Love and War. Stockdale famously credited Stoicism (and in particular his readings of Epictetus) for his survival under prolonged horrid conditions in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp.

Also owing a significant debt to Stoicism is the increasingly diverse family of practices that goes under the general rubric of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT, which was initially deployed to treat depression and now is more widely applied to a variety of mental conditions. Aaron T. Beck, author of Cognitive Therapy of Depression, acknowledges this debt when he writes, “The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers.”

Of course, Stoicism is a philosophy, not a type of therapy. The difference is crucial: a therapy is intended to be a short-term approach to helping people overcome specific problems of a psychological nature; it doesn’t necessarily provide a general picture, or philosophy, of life. A philosophy of life is something we all need, however, and something we all develop, consciously or not. Some people simply import wholesale whatever framework for life they acquire from a religion. Others make up their own philosophy as they go along, without thinking too much about it, but nonetheless engaging in actions and decisions that reflect some implicit understanding of what life is about. Still others would rather, as Socrates famously put it, take the time to examine their life in order to live it better.

Stoicism, like any life philosophy, may not appeal to or work for everyone. It is rather demanding, stipulating that moral character is the only truly worthy thing to cultivate; health, education, and even wealth are considered “preferred indifferents” (although Stoics don’t advocate asceticism, and many of them historically enjoyed the good things in life). Such “externals” do not define who we are as individuals and have nothing to do with our personal worth, which depends on our character and our exercise of the virtues. In this sense, Stoicism is eminently democratic, cutting across social classes: whether you are rich or poor, healthy or sick, educated or ignorant, it makes no difference to your ability to live a moral life and thus achieve what the Stoics called ataraxia, or tranquillity of mind.

For all its uniqueness, Stoicism has numerous points of contact with other philosophies, with religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, and Christianity), and with modern movements such as secular humanism and ethical culture. There is something very appealing to me, as a nonreligious person, in the idea of such an ecumenical philosophy, one that can share goals and at least some general attitudes with other major ethical traditions across the world. This commonality has allowed me to reject more forcefully the strident New Atheism that I criticized earlier, and it also allows religious persons to distance themselves from the even more pernicious fundamentalisms of different stripes that have been plaguing our recent history.

To a Stoic, it ultimately does not matter if we think the Logos is God or Nature, as long as we recognize that a decent human life is about the cultivation of one’s character and concern for other people (and even for Nature itself) and is best enjoyed by way of a proper, but not fanatical detachment from mere worldly goods.

There are also, naturally, challenges that remain unresolved, and which I will explore along with the reader in How to Be a Stoic. The original Stoicism, for instance, was a comprehensive philosophy that included not only ethics but also a metaphysics, a natural science, and specific approaches to logic and epistemology (that is, a theory of knowledge). The Stoics considered these other aspects of their philosophy important because they fed into and informed their main concern: how to live one’s life. The idea was that in order to decide on the best approach to living we also need to understand the nature of the world (metaphysics), how it works (natural science), and how (imperfectly) we come to understand it (epistemology).

But many of the particular notions developed by the ancient Stoics have ceded place to new ones introduced by modern science and philosophy and need therefore to be updated. For instance, as William Irvine explains in his lucid A Guide to the Good Life, the clear dichotomy the Stoics drew between what is and is not under our control is too strict: beyond our own thoughts and attitudes, there are some things that we can and, depending on circumstances, must influence, up to the point where we recognize that nothing more is in our power to be done.

It is also true, conversely, that the Stoics turned out to be overly optimistic about how much control human beings have over their own thoughts. Modern cognitive science has shown over and over again that we are often prey to cognitive biases and delusions. But in my view, this knowledge reinforces the idea that we need to train ourselves in virtuous and right thinking, as the Stoics advised.

Finally, one of the most attractive features of Stoicism is that the Stoics were open to considering challenges to their doctrines and altering them accordingly. In other words, it is an open-ended philosophy, ready to incorporate criticism from other schools (for instance, the socalled Skeptics of ancient times) as well as new discoveries. As Seneca famously put it: “Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.” In a world of fundamentalism and hardheaded doctrines, it is refreshing to embrace a worldview that is inherently open to revision.

For all these reasons, I have decided to commit to Stoicism as a philosophy of life, to explore it, to study it, to find areas of improvement if possible, and to share it with like-minded others. In the end, of course, Stoicism is yet another (unstraightforward) path devised by humanity to develop a more coherent view of the world, of who we are, and of how we fit into the broader scheme of things. The need for this sort of insight seems to be universal, and in How to Be a Stoic I will do my best to guide the reader down this ancient and yet remarkably modern road.

The problem is that I myself am rather a novice when it comes to Stoic philosophy, so we actually need to turn to a more expert chaperone, someone who can gently show us the way, nudging us away from the most common mistakes and keeping us on the path toward enlightenment. When Dante Alighieri went on his own spiritual journey, which resulted in the writing of the beautiful Divine Comedy, he imagined himself suddenly lost in the middle of a dark forest, with his way forward uncertain. It turned out that he was at the (imaginary) entrance to Hell, about to descend into its depths. Lucky for him, he had a sure mentor to guide him on his journey, the Roman poet Virgil. The journey we are about to embark upon is not as momentous as a visit to Hell, and this book certainly is no Divine Comedy, but in a sense we are lost too, and in need of guidance just as surely as Dante was. My choice for the role of our guide is Epictetus, the very first Stoic I encountered when I began my own exploration of that philosophy.

Epictetus was born in Hierapolis (present-day Pamukkale in Turkey) around the year 55 CE. Epictetus was not his real name, which is lost to us: the word simply means “acquired,” reflecting the fact that he was a slave. His known master was Epaphroditos, a wealthy freedman (that is, a former slave himself) who worked as a secretary to the emperor Nero in Rome, which is where Epictetus spent his youth. He was crippled, either by birth or because of an injury received while he was a slave under a former master. At any rate, Epaphroditos treated Epictetus well and allowed him to study Stoic philosophy under one of the most renowned teachers in Rome, Musonius Rufus.

After Nero’s death in 68 CE, Epictetus was freed by his master, a common practice in Rome with particularly intelligent and educated slaves. He then set up his own school in the capital of the empire, and taught there until 93 CE, when the emperor Domitian banned all philosophers from the city. (Philosophers in general, and Stoics in particular, were persecuted by a number of emperors, especially Vespasian and Domitian. Scores of philosophers were either killed, including Seneca right before the end of Nero’s reign, or exiled, as happened twice to Musonius. The Stoic penchant for speaking truth to power, as we would say today, did not go over well with some of the people who held very clearly to that power.)

Epictetus then moved his school to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece, where he may have been visited by the emperor Hadrian (one of the five socalled good emperors, the last of whom was Marcus Aurelius, arguably the most famous Stoic of all time). Epictetus became renowned as a teacher and attracted a number of high-profile students, including Arrian of Nicomedia, who transcribed some of the master’s lectures. Those lectures are known today as the Discourses, and I will use them as the basis for our exploration of Stoicism in this book. Epictetus never married, though late in his life he began to live with a woman who helped him raise the child of a friend, a boy who would have otherwise been left to die. Epictetus himself died around 135 CE.

*

from

How To Be a Stoic. Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living

by Massimo Pigliucci

get it at Amazon.com

One thought on “On Things in Our Power and Things Not in Our Power – Epictetus * How To Be a Stoic. Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living – Massimo Pigliucci.”

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