Making the most of every situation

In Discourse 3.20, Epictetus makes a powerful case that every situation can be turned to our advantage. As always it is a question of recognising that things external to us are neither good not bad:

No-one gives the name of good to the fact that it is day, nor bad to the fact that it is night…

Rather it is the way we react to circumstances that is good or bad. We can always turn a hindrance into a help:

…if a man helps me practice keeping my temper, does he not do good? … “Is my neighbour bad?” Bad to himself, but good to me: he exercises my good disposition, my moderation.

 

The road to happiness

There is only one way to happiness; keep it in mind morning, noon and night. The rule is not to look toward things which are out of the power of our will, to think that nothing is our own, to give up all things to the Divinity and to Fortune.

Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4.39

Don’t lose your mind

Epictetus (Handbook 28) points out that to feel distress when you are subjected  to criticism is tantamout to giving your mind away. Your mind (and reason) is the one thing you have power over, but if you give in to distress and confusion you are handing it over to your attacker.

If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?

Epictetus’ disapproval is clear here: you should be ashamed of giving away the one thing that is truly yours. The comparison with having your body taken away would have particularly resonated with Epictetus’ contemporary readers at a time when slavery was common (and of course Epictetus had been a slave). If you were angry at having your body (which you did not control) taken away, all the more reason to be ashamed of giving away your mind.

Play your allotted role

Epictetus’ Handbook, chapter 17:

Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.

On suffering

We only suffer because we allow ourselves to suffer. Thus it might seem that the suffering is our fault, and indeed this is how the novice Stoic would see it. But Epictetus points out that a “perfectly instructed ” person (a Sage?) will not blame themself, or indeed anyone else. Presumably, such a person has learnt not to suffer, and so there is no-one to blame.

Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.

Handbook, chapter 5

Epictetus – Handbook chapter 19

You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer. When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation. But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.