For Epictetus, just as a doctor works on the human body and the farmer works on the land, the good person works on her “ruling center.” Some other ways to think of this ruling center: the rational, enlightened mind, the capacity we have for examining our knee-jerk reactions and determining whether they are based on objective reality, the ability we have to choose an ethical path. It consists, to quote Abraham Lincoln, of the better angels of our nature.

In his Discourse 3.3 (trans. Robin Hard, 2014)–“What is the material that the good person works upon, and what should be the main object of our training?”–Epictetus tells us that our main task in life is to deal with impressions in accordance with nature. This concept can cause much confusion for modern Stoics, but he simplifies it. If something is true, you give your assent. If it is false, you dissent. If it is uncertain, then suspend judgment. He says that since it is in our nature to do these things, then it is also in our nature to desire what is good, have aversion to what is bad, and be indifferent to what is neither good nor bad. In order for this simplified analysis to make sense, one has to equate truth with the good. Epictetus draws an analogy between the good and currency. Just as no merchant in the day would have refused Caesar’s coinage, no mind would reasonably refuse “a clear impression of the good.” Conversely, no merchant would accept counterfeit coins, so we should not accept false reflections of reality.

So once we understand this, our job is done? No, according to Epictetus; we need to “train ourselves every day” with this mental exercise: We should examine everyone we see and consider what lies outside the sphere of choice for them, instead of forming judgments about how well or how poorly they must be faring in life. We should toss out any impression that we have of them that is based on things outside of their control. Because the things outside their control are neither good nor bad, it is a poor use of our ruling center to form judgments about them.

Epictetus’s recipe for peace of mind is to transfer our judgments to things within our control–and presumably, to things within other people’s control as well. However, as it is impossible to be inside someone else’s mind and know what it is within their control to assent to or dissent from, it is probably best to focus on our own minds and relinquish the immature fascination with and judging of what is going on with our neighbor. Unless, that is, we want to do something to help them, which would certainly be within our sphere of control and would evidence a desire for the good.

Epictetus ends this discourse with a lovely simile: “The mind is rather like a bowl filled with water, and impressions are like a ray of light that falls on that water. When the water is disturbed, the ray of light gives the appearance of being disturbed, but that isn’t really the case.” An impression is merely a reflection, not the ultimate reality of the ray of light–quasi-instantaneous, illuminating, and impervious to disturbances. It is in our nature to move toward the light.

Photo by Martin Damboldt on Pexels.

One thought on “Epictetus on the ruling center, reflections, and reality

  1. I find A.A. Long’s definition of the “ruling center” to be quite helpful.

    “The crucial idea is that volition is what persons are in terms of their mental faculties, consciousness, character, judgements, goals, and desires: volition is the self, what each of us is, as abstracted from the body … You and I are not our bodies, nor even do we own our bodies. We, our essential selves, are our volitions. In that domain, and only in that domain, we have the possibility of freedom.”

    From “Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life” — Clarendon Press.


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