Chapter 20. We Should Value What's In Our Control by Epictetus

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from The Enchiridion
The Reading Selection from The Enchiridion
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

Epictetus Antiquities Project

About the author…

Epictetus (c. 50—c. 130) was born a slave in Asia Minor, earned his freedom after being under Nero's secretary in Rome, and died sometime following his exile by Domitian in northwestern Greece. During the last years of his life, he established a school of study based on a curriculum of logic, physics, and ethics, continuing the Stoic tradition begun by Zeno of Citium four centuries earlier. Unlike many other Stoics, Epictetus avoided religious and political activism. In his moral philosophy, he emphasizes Socratic self-knowledge and insight and recognizes that each person is responsible for his choices in accordance with his active perception and interpretation of his circumstances. Epictetus' and, later, Spinoza's notion of active perception undoubtedly influenced Nietzsche's observation that a mark of the "new man" is his ability to will the present moment in spite of its inevitability. Epictetus once wrote, "First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do." "What you are," then, is obviously not determined by the outcome of your choices. "What you are" is not how you are perceived to be but "how you choose to be." He sought a simple, independent life as a citizen of the world.

As a slave, reportedly, Epictetus, was treated harshly by his master, Epaphroditus. On one occasion, as Epaphroditus twisted his leg horribly, Epictetus remarked, "If you keep twisting, the leg will break." His master took no notice and the leg snapped. Epictetus reminded him of the warning. Whether from this incident or whether from birth, Epictetus's lameness remained throughout his life.

About the work…

In his The Enchiridion,[1] a work recorded by his student Arrian, Epictetus describes how the philosophical life, achievable by reason, has as its end eudaimonia (happiness). Epictetus continued the Stoic character is living with arete in accordance with nature; by doing so, he believed any person can attain the practical characteristics of apatheia (composedness, willful avoidance of desires) and the resultant eupatheiai (feelings of well-being). Since we can control our thoughts and feelings, they have value. Since we cannot control external events or circumstances, these events have no intrinsic value, but are only "that which is to be what they are" and what we choose to make of them. On one hand, Epictetus carefully points out that mistaken judgments are the sole source of fear, greed, envy, and passion. On the other hand, oral and rational arete (excellence or virtue) is sufficient for emotional freedom and happiness.

Ideas of Interest from The Enchiridion

  1. Clarify Epictetus' distinction between things in our control and things outside of our control.

  2. How is it that if you do not find fault with things, you cannot be harmed? What kind of "harm" does Epictetus mean?

  3. Why (and how) is death not to be feared, according to Epictetus?

  4. Explain how our active awareness can interpret unfortunate circumstances or omens as good events. How is it that situations or events that happen to us are, in themselves neither good or bad?

  5. Clarify the implications of the thought that "the essence of good" consists in things in our own control

  6. Explain the method elaborated by Epictetus by which we should approach all things. Is there more to this method than might be first supposed?



Epictetus. The Enchiridion. Translated by Elizabeth Carter. 1756.