Epictetus’ Promise

I’m in the process of putting together the materials for my Summer School of Stoicism in Rome (register here, if you are interested!), and that includes going over the Enchiridion, Epictetus’ Handbook (assembled by his student Arrian), from the beginning. The first section is an absolute gem of Stoicism in action.

It begins, of course, with arguably the most cited Stoic saying in history:

“There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.”

This is the famous dichotomy of control, more familiar to many people from the Serenity Prayer, which however dates back only to 1934. Some may quibble that Epictetus overestimates what is actually under our control, including for instance desires and aversions. But there is a sound modern way to interpret this that I have discussed previously. Sure, innate or subconscious desires and aversions are not really under our control. I can’t avoid, for instance, being repelled by snakes. But desires and aversions also have a more complex, conceptual dimension to them, which is under our control. I can, for instance, realize that my fear of snakes (especially the non venomous ones) is irrational and actually overcome it, either by sheer will power or by training. That’s a basic principle of cognitive behavioral therapy.

It could also be argued that Epictetus was a bit too pessimist about the second group: my body, for instance, seems to be partially under my control. But that’s not what the passage means: sure, I can go to the gym and eat well, thereby attempting to preserve a healthy body. But the outcome of my efforts is still outside my (complete) control, since I may be struck by a disease regardless of my best efforts.

Epictetus continues: “Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men.”

This is a nice rendition of the discipline of desire, which stems from the acceptance of the dichotomy of control: if we insist in directing our efforts and building our hopes toward things we do not control, we are bound to be disappointed and angry. We will indeed be “disturbed” and find fault with both gods and men.

“But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.”

Conversely, if we do internalize the dichotomy of control, then all with be fine. Not in the sense that the universe will somehow bend to our will, but that we align our will with that of the universe, Amor Fati, as Nietzsche put it much later. This is what I call Epictetus’ promise: accept the dichotomy, practice the discipline of desire, and you will not be disturbed, nor will you find fault with either gods or men.

“Aiming, therefore, at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself any inclination, however slight, toward the attainment of the others; but that you must entirely quit some of them, and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would have these, and possess power and wealth likewise, you may miss the latter in seeking the former; and you will certainly fail of that by which alone happiness and freedom are procured.”

Here Epictetus is advising his students to give up certain external things altogether, and at the least postpone their quest for others until they are wiser and capable of more equanimity toward the adversities of life. If you go after power and wealth you will fail, not in the sense that you may not achieve them. That is up to Fortuna. But in the sense that you will miss out on the things that bring true happiness and freedom, such as the ability to make good judgments and to act virtuously.

Section I then concludes in this fashion:

“Seek at once, therefore, to be able to say to every unpleasing impression, ‘You are but an impression and by no means the real thing.’ And then examine it by those rules which you have; and first and chiefly by this: whether it concerns the things which are within our own power or those which are not; and if it concerns anything beyond our power, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.”

Epictetus reminds us of the distinction between “impressions” and (sound) judgment, a distinction fundamental to the discipline of assent. Your first reaction to something, like the promise of wealth, or an attractive casual sexual partner, may be that you absolutely must have it, because that would truly make you happy. But the Stoic counsel is to put some cognitive distance — as modern psychologists would say — between your impression and the judgment you form of it. Upon reflection, it may turn out that the impression was indeed correct, in which case, go forth. But more often than not it will be the case that what you thought was good (or bad) is, in fact, not important, or would get in the way of what is truly important.

The dichotomy of control (discipline of desire) and the development of good judgment of impressions (discipline of assent) together define what you actually do in life, which falls under the purview of the third Epictetian discipline, that of action. Practice these disciplines at every occasion, and Epictetus’ promise will be fulfilled.