Life Under Stoicism (Epictetus)

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  • Topic: Stoicism, Ethics, Epictetus
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The Difficulty in Living Life as a Stoic

Life as a Stoic is one focused on improving the world. In more specific terms, Epictetus believed the purpose of moral philosophy was to help show people the way to lead better lives. A life as a Stoic philosopher is therefore an ideal one for members of a society, for its focus is on improvement for all. However, for the actual individual, leading the life of a Stoic philosopher is difficult, for it commands that the individual subordinate his own ends to the ends and needs of his society. As such, life as a Stoic philosopher demands sacrifice. Thus, it is clear that the more Stoic philosophers in a society, the better. Yet, because it's so difficult to live as a Stoic, regardless of how desirable such a life may be, doing so is impossible for many in anything but a small degree.

For Epictetus, philosophy is not an interesting pastime or even a particular body of knowledge, but it is a way of life. The keystone of Stoicism is that there are somethings in this world that are uncontrollable, and somethings that are controllable. (Lachs) Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions–in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. (Epictetus 1, page 11)

Essentially, Epictetus believes that human beings are vulnerable and, therefore, are frequently hurt. Because most of the time one can't do anything to stop the things that ail him, the only possible (and worthwhile) thing to do, in Epictetus' mind, is to use those things that one can control to make the best out of the situation. For example, if someone hits another person's car while he is in the grocery store, the only thing the victim can control is his own reaction or impulse to the accident. Remaining calm in the face of such adversities (and worse) and controlling our emotions no matter what the provocation are accomplished in the full Stoic sense, for Epictetus, by making proper use of appearances. When you see someone weeping in grief at the departure of his child or the loss of his property, take care not to be carried away by the appearance that the externals he is involved in are bad, and be ready to say immediately, "What weighs down on this man is not what has happened (since it does not weigh down on someone else), but his judgment about it." (Epictetus 16, page 15)

Properly using appearances concerns how we move from being aware of something to what kind of judgment we make about it. Take as an example the unfortunate occurrence of losing a set of keys. The non-Stoic would frantically search about the house in desperation, while the Stoic would pause and figure out what is the best interpretation. In doing so the Stoic would realize that such occurrences are bound to happen and that there is nothing he can do but try to find them. Such a realization removes all desperation from the act of looking for a set of keys and allows the Stoic to remain calm in searching for them. Therefore, the Stoic and the non-Stoic contrast sharply. The non-Stoic would qualify an uncontrollable disaster a terrible misfortune and his emotional response the appearance would mimic his qualification. The Stoic, in contrast, says to himself, "Hold on, let me evaluate this appearance," so he may react in the best possible manner and achieve the most possible happiness.

Happiness, for Epictetus, is derived not from events, but from the reactions to those events. (Epictetus 16, page 15) Remember that what is insulting is not the person who abuses you or hits you, but the judgment about them that they are insulting. So when someone irritates you be aware that what irritates you is your own belief. Most importantly, therefore, try not to be carried away by appearance, since if you once gain time and delay you will control yourself more...
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