“Visionaries: Epictetus,” by Elif Batuman. The New Yorker, 12/19/2016.
My major at Penn State was chemistry, but much of what I remember was from the few non-technical electives that were required. I could select anything that sounded interesting, and I felt I was at a buffet table. One I chose as a freshman was Introduction To Philosophy, which was so enjoyable I followed with Ethics in the same department. (No jokes, please. I’ve heard them all.) There, I first learned of the Greek philosopher Epictetus, but I always considered him only of historical importance. Batuman’s article relates him to the present.
I also learned not to confuse Epictetus with the better-known, but very different earlier Greek philosopher, Epicurus.
The philosophy of Epicurus was that happiness is the only intrinsic value. Everything we do is to increase our happiness. Indulging in pleasure is one way to bring happiness, but we have to thoughtfully weigh what pleasures will gave us the most happiness. The pleasure of sex, food, and drink are intense, but short-lived. Other pleasures, more cerebral, are not so intense, but long lasting, and so contribute the most happiness in the long run. As naive undergraduates, Epicurus confirmed what we were already learning by experience. The philosophy of Epictetus was a step up in complexity.
Greek philosophers typically taught small groups of students verbally, but they themselves did not write anything down. The lucky ones had a student that did. Socrates had Plato. Epictetus had Arrian.
Arrian wrote eight books on the teachings of Epictetus that he called The Discourses, but only four have survived. He also wrote a popular digest as an introduction to The Discourses that he called the Enchiridion, or Handbook, that is discussed here. It is available for free download at Gutenberg.org. (I convert their downloads to Word documents for easier reading, editing, and searching.)
The philosophy of Epictetus in a nutshell is that there are things we can change and things we can’t. Things like poverty, health, and reputation are out of our control, and concerning yourself about them only leads to unhappiness. Accept whatever the gods give you and curb your unrealistic desires. For Epictetus, the only thing we can totally control, and therefore the only thing we should ever worry about, is our own judgment about what is good.
Epictetus lived in simpler times, and today they require modification, but we can still learn from them. Perhaps we could have avoided health problems and poverty if we had made better choices earlier, but the past is past, and we have to move on. Just as long as we do not become too accepting of our current difficulties.
You may have guessed, Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher. The first line of the Enchiridion is “Some things are in our control and others not.” Much of the advice that follows is about not getting angry at slaves, but we can still apply this to contractors who cheat us, or to lovers who lie, or to strangers who sneer at us.
The futility of berating ourselves for “shoulda, woulda, coulda,” as we say today, is pure Epictetus.