Saturday, September 28, 2013


Epictetus (c55--135 CE) [pictured left as well as below left], who was born in Hierapolis in Phrygia (modern-day Turkey), was a Greek sage and Stoic philosopher of some renown. He was one of the last of the Stoics---even though he adhered very closely to the early Stoic tradition---and he was possibly the greatest of them all.

When only a boy he was made a slave in Rome, banished by the Roman emperor Domitian, but he managed to study under the great Roman stoic teacher Musonius Rufus. After being freed---we are not sure when or why that occurred---he went to Greece, to a little town in Epirus, where he opened his own school of philosophy. 

It seems that Epictetus wrote nothing himself, and we are indebted to one of his students, Flavius Arrian, for committing to writing the Encheiridion (‘Manual’), the work that represent Epictetus’ teachings, being lecture transcriptions of Epictetus. Sadly, most of Arrian’s writings, including those that purport to record the philosophy of Epictetus, are no longer extant. What is of interest is that the Encheiridion was much used in the Middle Ages as a guide to the principles of the Christian monastic life.

Now, Epictetus was not a mere theoretician or speculative philosopher, for he saw and wrote about things-as-they-really-are. As Epictetus rightly saw it, life is ever so often harsh and cruel, and there is much that happens to us that we have not actively or even passively brought about. Acceptance, he said, is the answer to all our problems and difficulties. As the Indian spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti would often say, ‘In the acknowledgment of what is, there is the cessation of all conflict.’ Not only the cessation of conflict, but serenity, peace of mind, and freedom. Epictetus expressed it this way:

Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within our control, and some things are not.

Epictetus' idea of acceptance is well-expressed in this statement attributed to him: 'I do not obey God, I agree with Him.' In other words, we must accept things-as-they-really-are. One of the most important things to learn in life is this---events, in particular things that happen, are, in and of themselves, impersonal. They do not happen to us. They simply happen. Yes, we must take responsibility for making an appropriate response to events  for which we are responsible, but we are not responsible for the actions or opinions of others. Events don’t, or shouldn’t, hurt us. It is our perceptions of those events that hurts us. In that regard, Epictetus wrote, ‘We are not disturbed by things, but by the view we take of them,’ and ‘It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.’ He went even further, saying:

Does the tyrant say he will throw me into prison? He cannot imprison my spirit. Does he say that he will put me to death? He can only cut off my head.

Epictetus wrote much on the right disposition of the will---the will to live, the will to survive, the will to overcome, and the will to be happy. Will is the ability, that is, the power, to make a decision, and then do what is necessary to see things through, but no more power than that is required for the task. Will, and not so-called 'will power,' is the way to go. We must, however, learn to properly control our will, and use it wisely, if we wish to be masters of our own fate. 

Then there’s this gem of Epictetus, which says much about the nature and ‘purpose’ of both philosophy and life itself: ‘The essence of philosophy is that we should so live that our happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.’ Yes, Epictetus was an early apologist for living simply. One other thing---he never speculated on life after death; indeed he never dealt directly with the subject at all.

Here’s another wonderful thing about the man. He understood the power and workings of the human mind in a way that was very much ahead of his time. He wrote: ‘In all people, thought and action start from a single source, namely feeling.’ In saying that, Epictetus showed that he had more than a little understanding of the workings of the subconscious mind. You see, thought must be backed up by feeling for it to have any power. Thought and feeling blend together in forming conviction. Without conviction no thought (eg ideal, hope) can take hold in the subconscious mind, and it is only when the subconscious mind accepts one’s thought is there any chance of its actualization. Epictetus was an early exponent of self-image psychology and creative visualization. He wrote: ‘First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do.’

Epictetus also saw the inter-connectedness and interdependence of all things whilst resisting an overall monism. He also held that, despite our preconceptions (prolepsis) of good and evil, there was only one ultimate Power (‘God’) and that Power was All-Good and very near to us. Yes, the Power can be used by us and others for purposes that are either relative good or relative bad, but unity, not duality, is the name of the game. Unhappiness is due to opinions and beliefs that we hold---preconceptions that not only stand in objective contradiction to things-as-they-really-are but also prevent us from seeing things-as-they-really-are. Happiness comes from a mindful acceptance of things-as-they-really-are. And difficulties? Well, they are things ‘that show a person what they are.’ Further, ‘you are not free unless you are master of yourself.’ On the subject of what we now call mindfulness Epictetus wrote:

Open your eyes: see things for what they really are, thereby sparing yourself the pain of false attachments and avoidable devastation.

Over the years many writers and commentators have remarked upon the similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. Both systems of thought espouse the view that pain and suffering are largely the result of attachment and not seeing things-as-they-really-are. Both systems of thought stress the importance of acceptance and non-resistance. Both systems of thought assert that happiness and freedom are attainable---even in a most imperfect and often harsh world that is not entirely or even substantially of our own making.

Epictetus was also an early apologist for the art and science and practice of mindfulness. What does he say on the matter? Here's this gem, which reminds me of the Buddha's advice, 'When you walk, just walk, when you eat, just eat, when you sleep, just sleep, and when you sit, just sit,' and St Paul's 'This one thing I do' (Phil 3:13):

When you are going about any action, remind yourself what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, ‘I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.’ And in the same manner with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, ‘It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.

'Open your eyes: see things for what they really are,' says Epictetus. The result? You are then spared the pain of false attachments and avoidable devastation. False attachments take many forms, perhaps the worst being beliefs, misbeliefs, and delusions. We are in direct and immediate contact with what is real, but beliefs, misbeliefs, and delusions distort reality and obstruct our moment-to-moment experience and awareness of reality. That is why I rail against all the traditional religious belief systems, especially those of the three great (or not-so-great) monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, at least in their conventional, exoteric forms. Buddhism, at least in its early forms---still found in many parts of the world today---is not a belief system; indeed the historical Buddha also railed against beliefs, asserting that there was nothing to believe.

Open your eyes. See things for what they really are. Know. Understand. But don’t believe.

P.S. This is my 250th post on this blogsite. Heartiest thanks to my many loyal readers. IEJ.


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