Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Enchiridion: A Commentary (Part 1)

Today I finished "The Enchiridion", one of the works of Epictetus. I think, due to it's shortness, it is one of the better reads for those just getting into Stoicism. It takes no more than a few hours of reading to get it done (though, it is philosophy and that'll take years, if not a lifetime, to live it). But, as a bit of a two-way better digestion of the text, I decided to write up a commentary, expressing my thoughts and hopefully encouraging others to think and express theirs.

If you need a free copy, just click. It'll take you to the Internet Classics Archive. It's also the version I used.
Somethings are in our control and others not.
This is simple enough. I think if you needed a simple way to start summing up the basis for Stoic tranquility, this is the one line you need.
Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions
Alright, perhaps this is where some confusion arises. It isn't so much what's in our power that we question, but what isn't in our power. Our bodies? Property? How are these things not in our power?

Simple. Let's take our bodies. While we do have a responsibility to take care of our bodies, we can't help if and when we get sick. We can make all the healthy choices in the world and still catch a cold. We could fall off a ladder, break a leg, whatever. There's nothing we can do and so outside of our control.

If I could simplify what Epictetus said what was in our control, I would say it comes down to two things: opinion and choice. What we think about things and how we try to carry out our choices are all we've got. Keep in mind, what we choose to do doesn't mean we always get to do it. But how we feel about our ability or inability to carry out a choice is up to us.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.
Basically, if you confuse things that aren't in your control as things that are in your control, you're going to have a bad time.

Now, when Epictetus said no one would hurt you, you'll have no enemies, and you won't be harmed, he meant it in a Stoic sense. See, hurt is in the sense of emotional or mental hurt, not psychical pain. He means more along the lines of if someone insults you, you remember that you don't have any control over what other people do and so, realizing that, choose not to feel hurt by the insult. Enemies can't happen, either, because the Stoic won't really be concerned with people liking them or not. While a Stoic doesn't go out of their way to make people upset, they know they can't make everyone happy and don't let themselves get bothered when they can't. Enemies can only happen when hate goes two ways.
Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.
Okay, philosophers were a bit extreme back then. Epictetus seemly advocates dropping everything that isn't helping you towards tranquility right now and everything else that you can't tell if it's helping or not, postpone it. But you can't have shoot for tranquility while at the same time shooting for, as he puts it, power and riches. Power and riches, all that jazz, that's outside your control and so, by going for it, you're setting yourself up for potential failure and sadness. Even if you did obtain power and riches, you'd worry about losing it. However, this is where the postponement  thing comes in. If you go for tranquility first and realize what's in your power and what's not, you'll better understand power and riches. You can take the sting out of failure and the dread of loss if you never thought it was in your power to get any of it in the first place.

Oh, and while this may seem depressing, I'll be addressing in a different post way this worldview isn't that bad.
Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, "You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be." And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.
This is the start of how one can gain Stoic tranquility. Don't just remind yourself with harsh thing. Remind yourself everything is but an appearance and not what it appears to be.

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