As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I recently organized the entries of the Handbook of Epictetus into three categories: ones that encourage the reader to readjust her thinking, ones that advise the reader what to do for a happy and virtuous life, and ones that describe thoughts and actions to avoid. I’ll focus on the last two categories in this post. These lists, read of course alongside the Handbook, should help you absorb Epictetus’ message and integrate it into your thought patterns.
I am using the Robin Hard translation (Epictetus: Discourses, Fragments, Handbook, Oxford University Press, 2014). Here is a free version; there are others online as well.
- Engage disagreeable impressions; say, “You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.” (1.5)
- Transfer your aversion from things not within your power. The proper object is things that are “contrary to nature among those things that are within our power.” (2.2)
- Accept outcomes. Instead of hoping everything happens as you wish it to, “wish that everything that comes about should come about just as it does.” (8)
- Look within and examine your capacity to handle things that happen to you. Epictetus says once you get into this habit, you won’t be “swept away by your impressions.” (10)
- Endure being thought foolish with regard to external things. If you make choices in accord with nature, you’re “bound to neglect” externals. (13) Along these lines, “be content . . . to be a philosopher in all that you do”; if you turn to external things in order to gratify someone else, “you’ve lost your plan in life.” (23)
- “Exercise yourself in that which you can achieve.” (14)
- Behave as though you are a guest at a banquet. When a dish arrives in front of you, “reach out your hand and take your share politely.” (15)
- Act the role that is assigned to you in life. You do not choose the role. (17)
- Keep in mind frightening things, especially death, in order to avoid mean thoughts or unreasonable desires. (21)
- View your own misfortunes, both small and great, with the same equanimity and perspective with which you view others’. (26)
- Look to social relationships to determine appropriate behavior. “Do the ties of nature bind you, then, only to a good father? No, but to a father.” (30)
- “Lay down from this moment a certain character and pattern of behavior for yourself, which you are to preserve both when you’re alone and when you’re with others.” (33.1)
- “In things relating to the body, take only as much as your bare need requires.” (33.7)* Once you’ve passed this point, “there is no limit” and you’ll “find yourself falling . . . over a cliff.” His quaint sartorial example is that once we desire more than just a plain shoe, we’ll want a gilded shoe, then a purple one, then an embroidered one. (39) Related: we should “devote undivided attention” to the mind, and do things related to the body “in passing.” (41)
- Take care “to avoid harming your ruling center.” (38) I put this in the do’s to emphasize the affirmative obligation to use caution.**
Some of these “don’ts,” indicated by italicized citations, are contained within certain entries noted above.
- Don’t “pride yourself on any excellence that is not your own.” In Epictetus’ example, don’t brag that you have a beautiful horse. What is your own is “the right use of impressions.” (6) Similarly, don’t brag because you are richer or are a better speaker than the other person. You are neither your possessions, nor your way of speaking. (44)
- Don’t hope for everything to happen just as you wish. (8)
- Don’t “want anything nor seek to avoid anything that is under the control of others.” If you do, you will be “bound to be a slave.” (14)
- When you are at that banquet, when a plate passes you, “don’t try to hold it back”; if it hasn’t arrived yet, “don’t project your desire towards it.” (15)
- When consoling someone who is suffering, don’t “lament deep inside.” Maintain the belief, even while outwardly sympathizing with his distress, that external events do not control one. (16)
- Don’t be self-important and supercilious because you are learning about philosophy. At the same time, don’t allow others’ jibes to get to you–if you do, and it leads you to relinquish your beliefs, you’ll be ridiculed for that, too, and will thus be “laughed at twice over.” (22)***
- Don’t turn to external things to gratify another person. (23)
- Don’t “hand over your mind to [just] anyone who comes along.” Epictetus draws an analogy to the body: “If someone handed over your body to somebody whom you encountered, you’d be furious.” (28)
- Don’t bring desire or aversion to the diviner, and don’t approach with trepidation.^ Outcomes are indifferent; whatever happens, “it will be possible for you to make good use of it, and […] no one can prevent you from doing so.” (32.2)
- Don’t speak on everyday topics, don’t talk about people, and don’t laugh often or without restraint. Also, don’t try to arouse laughter; it tends to cause others to respect you less. (33.2, 33.15)
- Don’t talk too much about your own exploits; they are not nearly as interesting to other people to listen to as they are for you to talk about them. (33.14)
- Don’t get carried away when you receive an impression of pleasure. In general, make impressions, good or bad, wait for you–“allow yourself some slight delay.” (34)
- Once you decide to do something, don’t try to avoid being seen doing it, even if most people will disapprove. If it’s not right, then don’t do it in the first place. (35)
- Don’t “receive convincing impressions of some things but give your assent to others.” In Epictetus’ example, if someone drinks a lot, don’t say she drinks badly, but that she drinks a lot.^^ (45)
I would like to extend a special thanks to Arrian for following Epictetus and jotting down his teachings.
*Interestingly, along with the necessities of food, drink, clothes and housing, Epictetus includes slaves. This from a former slave.
**The Greek for “ruling center” is hêgemonikon. From http://www.letsreadgreek.com/epictetus/enchiridionkeyterms.htm: “hêgemonikon[:] ‘commanding faculty’, the controlling part of the soul (psuchê); the centre of consciousness, the seat of all mental states, thought by the Stoics (and some other ancients) to be located in the heart. It manifests four mental powers: the capacity to receive impressions, to assent to them, form intentions to act in response to them, and to do these things rationally. The Discourses and Handbook talk of keeping the prohairesis in the right condition, and also of keeping the hêgemonikon in the right condition, and for Epictetus these notions are essentially interchangeable.”
***Epictetus’ example of a jibe, proving that people haven’t much changed since then: “Look, he’s come back to us having become a philosopher all of a sudden!” Potential taunts of this nature are probably why I haven’t told most people I know that I have a Stoicism blog!
^ A modern substitute for “diviner” could simply be our projections for the future, which we sometimes hope or fear to be the inevitable reality.
^^ To quote Joe Friday from the 50s television show Dragnet, “Just the facts.”