Stoic Lessons: Epictetus On What Is In Our Power & What Is Not

In the course of life, an individual faces many obstacles. Financial hardships, relationship problems, disruptions in set plans, moments of weakness, environmental barriers, cultural barriers and many more.

To Epictetus, almost all of these disruptions fall into the realm of things that are out of one’s control. Except for moments of weakness, we have influence over such a thing because Epictetus believed that we have the power to control our positive and negative impulses. The power to make good use of impressions. Impressions being things that have an effect on the mind.

The ability to reason allows us to controls these impressions. With reason comes judgment about what is good for us and what is bad for us. Reason allows us to plan a course of action that is the most beneficial for us. Reason can also halt any negative temptations, for we always know what the right thing to do is, while the right action is what can be troublesome and can cause moments of weakness because the right action can be difficult. However, reason can show us that it is the correct path.

Reason is twofold: It can analyze other objects but it can also analyze itself and see whether or not we are applying the correct reason or if decisions and actions based on reason are correct. Because reason can correct itself, it is considered to be one of Man’s greatest gifts. For Epictetus, the ability to reason is superior to other abilities like writing or music for example, because words cannot tell you if it is a good thing to write them or music cannot tell you when is the proper time to play an instrument. Reason, on the other hand, can analyze itself and tell you what the proper use of itself is.

Reason is one of the few things under our control and hence, it requires our attention. Rather than worrying about things we have no influence on, one must dedicate their thinking to what they can control. Namely, reason, as well as their attitudes and their will.

Attitude towards the hardship one faces in life can be the difference between moving forward or allowing the hardship to break you. Death and your dying are not under your control but your attitude towards it is. One can face their mortality by either being weighed down by the inevitable or by making use of the limited time they have. It’s an attitude towards life and time that needs to be practiced.

Epictetus referred to this practice as the practice of what is necessary. What is necessary is the use of reason, control of one’s emotions and molding an attitude towards life. Practice is the key term here. By using such a word, Epictetus puts forth the notion that one needs to develop, hone and enhance the things under their control. That one is not innately born with the ability to make use of what is in their control. Hence, one has to use life and the obstacles it presents as opportunities to improve upon their reason, attitude, and control.

Perhaps get to the point where one is like Agrippinus, who was well aware of the lack of control he has over his life and so, was not bothered by things which were out of his control. So much so, that he would often say that he did not add to his own troubles. Which is the right attitude. Life will add many troubles, it doesn’t need your assistance.

And so, one should learn from Agrippinus and try to emulate his reason and behavior for he had this to say of his exile and eventual death:

I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived — and dying I will tend to later.

 

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