Epictetus – ‘Discourses’ and ‘Handbook’

Stoicism is in vogue – this 2000-year-old philosophy has been popularised in recent years as a kind of ‘lifehack’ – it’s an extremely seductive idea in a world where people feel like they have so little control over events both in their own lives and in the World around them, because it helps people get over their feelings of impotence – to ignore those ‘impressions’ which one has no means of influencing or changing.

When learning about Stoicism there are 3 people you need to know – Roman statesman and advisor to the Emperor Nero, Seneca; the so-called ‘Philosopher King’, Marcus Aurelius (Joaquin Phoenix’s Dad in Gladiator) and Epictetus, a former slave who taught Stoicism in Rome. All three of these wrote and spoke about Stoicism more than 300 years after the Stoic philosophy was founded at the end of the 4th century BC.
I highly recommend reading both Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Seneca’s Letters but this post is about Epictetus and his Discourses.

Epictetus didn’t actually write anything, and the Discourses are essentially lecture notes written up by one of his pupils, Arrian, who also helpfully summarised the 7 books of Discourses into a short book called the Enchiridion, or Handbook. Of the 7 books written for the Discourses, only 4 actually survive. Each book is split into short explanations about how to live a good life through constant reflection and the forming of good habits with chapters such as ‘What is the essence of the good?’, ‘On contentment’ and ‘That we should approach everything with circumspection’. What the Stoic philosophy boils down to is:

‘Some things are within our power, while others are not.’

This is our ‘Sphere of choice’ – a split between the internal phenomena which are within our control and external things which are not. Internal circumstances such as our feelings and opinions are well within our power to control, which means that no matter how terrible something that happens to us is, it is only our internal reactions to these events which makes them bad: external events therefore, cannot be intrinsically ‘bad’:

‘It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them.’

This makes a lot of sense and has been put to great effect by people in the worst possible circumstances; a modern example is Admiral James Stockdale, who was a POW in Vietnam for 7 years – physically and psychologically tortured, he put his survival down to putting his knowledge of Stoicsim into practice.

So, according to Stoicism, there is no point is worrying about things which are beyond our control (IE Externals) – why be distressed, anxious, frightened about something you have absolutely no control over? Epictetus and the Stoics say you shouldn’t – and that if we can train ourselves to think like that then we will live much happier lives.

Here’s an example of putting Stoicism into practice in our modern lives: You are stuck in a traffic jam, trying to get home but you are barely moving; the clock is ticking; you’re starting to get frustrated – huffing and puffing and swearing under your breath; you can feel your heart rate increasing and you’re starting to sweat. Beep the horn, punch the steering wheel – you’re extremely p!ssed off… but why? You can’t control the traffic – it is what it is and no amount of frustration will get you home sooner – in fact it may cause you to do something rash and cause an accident or even a fight. So accept it – it’s an external – you can’t control that but you can control your reaction to that. Stay calm, make the most of the time you think is being wasted by training your patience or listening to an audio version of the ‘Discourses’.

In Epictetus’ Stoicism it is not enough to read about it and to tell others about it (he frequently castigates those ‘philosophers’ he sees as talking the btalk but not walking the walk) – one must put what one has learned into practice every hour of every day and act in accordance with Stoic principles – perhaps a straightforward proposition until you realise the extremes this goes to.

I think Stoicism is a wonderfully attractive method for living in the modern world but it has been the victim of cherrypicking. First of all, Stoics believe in God and Fate – everything happens for a good reason, which is not entirely palatable to a lot of people. Secondly, when considering the tenet above that one should not concern oneself with ‘Externals’, it begs the questions about what, if any, limits can be applied to this.

Epictetus though, is quite specific about this – it doesn’t matter how horrendous something is – if it’s an external then it’s an external and should not be fretted over. Here’s an excerpt from the Handbook, chapters 14 and 11:

‘If you want your children and wife and friends to live for ever, you’re a fool, because you’re wanting things that aren’t within your power to be within your power, and things that aren’t your own to be your own.’

It’s an entirely logical statement but surely a stretch for most people to be able to accept the death of their loved ones, and I doubt most people who follow Stoicism today can truly be that consistent.

So Stoicism may not be something that most people can take on entirely, but in the Discourses and Handbook we can find tips for living a ‘good’ life and for cutting down on the stress and anxiety of living in our modern society.

Plato’s Cave Allegory Animation

Plato’s cave allegory for the nature of reality. Everyone who reads it (or watches a cartoon about it) for the first time thinks they’re the one who was let out of the cave 😉

‘The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence’ by Baltasar Gracian

Gracian is the Macchiavelli most have never heard of. He was a Jesuit priest in 17th century Spain, but the ‘Soldier of God’ side doesn’t come out in this work. In fact, besides the occasional quote or reference to Ignatius (the Jesuit order’s founder), the text is entirely secular in tone.

What does come across quite strongly though is his inspiration from and adherence to Stoicism. He regularly quotes and alludes to Seneca and Epictetus, and many of his aphorisms promote Stoic themes in life:

‘We climb the ladder of life, and the rungs — the days — disappear one after another, the moment we move our feet. There is no way to climb down, nothing to do but go forward.’

So why Macchiavellian? This, his most famous book, is a collection of exactly 300 aphorisms inspired by, and meant to help navigate, the backstabbing world of 17th century Baroque Spain. His ‘tips’ were for negotiating not just the higher echelons of government (he was confessor to the viceroy of Aragon at one point) but all levels of social strata and the competition that was natural in society. Gracian’s lumping in with the spirit of Macchiavelli is due to the directness of some of his advice, particularly where he endorses the idea that the end justifies the means. Gracian also has some apparently cold opinions about friendship and the usefulness of friends.

Gracian wrote in a popular style of the period known as ‘Conceptism’, the aim of which was to be as brief, direct, intelligible and witty as possible. This gives his work a simplicity and accessibility which makes it easy on the eyes of modern readers. The short aphorisms themselves allow the reader to read one and then spend time to digest it before moving on to the next (and often, thematically unrelated) one.

The Pocket Oracle is also eminently quotable. I’ve always read with a pen and notebook to hand to scribble down any interesting sentences – some books will make me stop frequently to do this while others, though not necessarily any less profound, have no memorable sentences. With the Pocket Oracle, you can end up highlighting or re-writing the entire book – it’s chock full of witty phrases, memorable analogies and colourful metaphors.
So it wouldn’t be worth writing all of my favourite quotes from the book here – just get a copy and read it. I will quote one odd little sentence here though, which caught my eye because I’m 6’3”:

‘It’s a commonplace that a tall person is rarely wise – not so much long-legged, as long-winded.’

Thanks Baltasar…

I have two regrets about the reading of this book: first, I read it as I would read a novel; that is, several or many pages at a time. The disadvantage of this is that, as each aphorism rarely takes up even half a page, there is no time to reflect on each one without going back and spending more time on it. So if/when I come back to this book in the future I’ll read one aphorism at a time; in this sense it makes the perfect book to keep on your bedside table and read one aphorism a night.
My other regret is not having known about it when I was in my teens having only got around to it in my, ahem, late-thirties. I imagine this would be the ultimate fount of knowledge for someone in their late teens or twenties, just as they’re starting to need practical wisdom to navigate adult life. In fact, that reminds me of of one aphorism in The Pocket Oracle which summarises the entire work; that is, how to live:

‘What use is knowledge, if it isn’t practical? And today, knowing how to live is true knowledge.’ 

Some good advice from Blaise ‘You’d better believe in God, just in case he’s real’ Pascal:

A philosopher’s 350-year-old trick to get people to change their minds is now backed up by psychologists